An American Editor

August 15, 2016

On Books: Visions and Revisions (Part II)

by Alison Parker

Aristotle was obsessed with aha! moments. Metaphor, he tells us in his Rhetoric, is superior to simile because simile goes on too long and detracts from the drama. Perhaps like adverbs in dialogue tags in modern fiction? No, the old philosopher didn’t say that. But he did say that metaphor can light up the synapses. “Oh!” the listener or reader will say to himself. “This is that!” See, for example, Aristotle’s Rhetoric 3.10.

And the recognition or revelation scene in drama — the anagnorisis — satisfies Aristotle even more. Here we come to the point in the plot at which a character or characters recognize their or someone else’s true identity or motives, or even the nature of their situation. Eyes are opened, either for good or for bad. And everything changes after these revelations.

The classic example in Aristotle’s Poetics is Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannos/Rex (Tyrant is a better title word than King historically, because Oedipus isn’t considered a king in lawful succession from father to firstborn son until the end of the play). In this pioneering whodunit (except that the audience knows who did it, though not how it will be discovered in this play or what will happen afterward), the protagonist plays sleuth to find out who killed the former king of Thebes, the first husband of Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta. Oops.

Other great examples include Othello — don’t forget that Iago’s wife has her light bulb moment, if you’ll forgive the anachronism, just before her husband stabs her and shuts her up in Othello’s presence. And check out the plot of the Hildebrandslied, when father and son meet in battle.

Recognition scenes in ancient comedy are often more mechanical, relying on tokens like rings or necklaces. See, for example, Terence’s Hecyra (“The Mother-in-Law”). While her new husband is out of town for some months, a young woman starts shunning her mother-in-law, and when the husband returns, he finds his wife in childbirth. The baby can’t possibly be his! Things look dire for a while. But a ring that the hero stole from a girl he raped during a drunken spree reveals that his wife was his victim and the child is his. Everyone is happy.

Aristotle considered tragedy superior to epic and more philosophical than history. (The novel is a later literary development.) But Homer’s Odyssey has a bang-up set of recognition scenes when Odysseus returns to Ithaca after twenty years: Odysseus’s poor dog! The scar! The bed! Aristotle thinks of this epic as appealing to a lower audience, and the best drama of Sophocles to a higher one, but to heck with Aristotle. When drama is properly injected into narrative, the synapses still fire up. And I’d suggest that this goes for all genres, fiction and nonfiction alike.

Granted, with A Little Princess we find ourselves in fairy tale territory. But Frances Hodgson Burnett has set up her revised Cinderella plot to make almost perfect sense within the parameters of fantasy and romance. Every incident follows by probability or necessity from the scene before.

In Sara Crewe, the precursor to A Little Princess, Burnett gives the reader an impressive recognition scene. After the monkey belonging to the ailing gentleman next door escapes over the roof, Sara catches the monkey and returns it. She meets the gentleman, Mr. Carrisford, and — whoa! — after he asks her an idle question to which he already knows the answer (“You live next door?”) and then follows it up, he discovers that she’s the daughter of his dear departed business partner. We will soon learn that Mr. Carrisford has been searching for Sara for years, eaten up by guilt for the way he seemed to have defrauded her father when an investment looked bad. Quite the surprise to the reader, especially because the gentleman had been mentioned only once before at any length in the short story, and Burnett has to use most of the rest of the tale to tell the reader the backstory, almost all in basic narrative.

When Burnett revisits the story in her novel, she doesn’t go for a cheap surprise ending. We’ve already come to know Mr. Carrisford, the supposedly false friend, and heard his anguish over the disastrous fallout from investment in diamond mines. And we know how assiduously he has tried to find the little girl. His lawyer has been searching for her in France and in Russia, from which he has just returned with disappointing news.

We have also seen Mr. Carrisford take an interest in the poor little girl next door, as does his manservant, and her brutal attic room becomes a fairy tale of delights because the gentleman wants to make at least one little girl happy, and suddenly Sara is warm and full fed because of his “romantic” actions. Instead of surprise and fireworks, we have suspense that leads up to the anagnorisis.

And when Sara enters his room, she says something particular that offers the man a clue of her identity.

“Your monkey ran away again,” she said, in her pretty voice. “He came to my garret window last night, and I took him in because it was so cold. I would have brought him back if it had not been so late. I knew you were ill and might not like to be disturbed.”

The Indian gentleman’s hollow eyes dwelt on her with curious interest.

“That was very thoughtful of you,” he said.

Sara looked toward Ram Dass, who stood near the door.

“Shall I give him to the Lascar?” she asked.

“How do you know he is a Lascar?” said the Indian gentleman, smiling a little.

“Oh, I know Lascars,” Sara said, handing over the reluctant monkey. “I was born in India.”

The Indian gentleman sat upright so suddenly, and with such a change of expression, that she was for a moment quite startled.

“You were born in India,” he exclaimed, “were you? Come here.” And he held out his hand.

The word Lascar is a little less than apt here. Burnett earlier defines it as meaning a sort of manservant, probably to simplify matters for her children’s audience, but she had to know a lot more about Lascars from growing up in a port city with a Lascar problem. The OED defines the word as an East Indian seaman or an inferior infantryman, and Merriam-Webster adds army servant. But outside of dictionaries, the word is sometimes used in a more ethnic sense. We’ll address this difficulty in a later essay on the expanded role of servants in A Little Princess. But Sara’s unexpected use of the word here is what triggers the aha! moment.

And Burnett doesn’t leave us with a simple and single recognition scene. In the chapter “It Is the Child!” Mr. Carrisford slumps back in his chair because of the weight of the recognition. Is he dying?

Sara, led out of the library, now thinks of the Indian gentleman as the “wicked friend” whose actions killed her father! But when she learns the whole story, and particularly the fact that the man on the other side of the row-house wall from the cold, hard school for girls was the one who supplied her with her fairy tale room — out of the goodness of his heart and because he was worried about her! — she rushes back into his house and we have a lovely reconciliation. The lawyer, Mr. Carmichael, and one who has become an important character in Burnett’s revision, and with his large, happy family a symbol of all Sara wants, lets her back in:

She went and stood before his [Mr. Carrisford’s] chair, with her hands clasped together against her breast.

“You sent the things to me,” she said, in a joyful emotional little voice, “the beautiful, beautiful things? YOU sent them!”

“Yes, poor, dear child, I did,” he answered her. He was weak and broken with long illness and trouble, but he looked at her with the look she remembered in her father’s eyes — that look of loving her and wanting to take her in his arms. It made her kneel down by him, just as she used to kneel by her father when they were the dearest friends and lovers in the world.

“Then it is you who are my friend,” she said; “it is you who are my friend!” And she dropped her face on his thin hand and kissed it again and again.

“The man will be himself again in three weeks,” Mr. Carmichael said aside to his wife. “Look at his face already.”

A lawyer with a heart. Now that’s a fairy tale! 🙂

And it gets better in the novel with the humiliation of the evil schoolmistress in a secondary recognition scene. In the original story, the drama here is nonexistent. Miss Minchin learns of Sara’s change in fortune in this fashion: “First, Mr. Carmichael came and had an interview with Miss Minchin.” We learn much later, in a one-sentence flashback in the pluperfect, that Miss Minchin had tried unsuccessfully to win Sara back.

It was rather a painful experience for Miss Minchin to watch her ex-pupil’s fortunes, as she had the daily opportunity to do, and to feel that she had made a serious mistake, from a business point of view. She had even tried to retrieve it by suggesting that Sara’s education should be continued under her care, and had gone to the length of making an appeal to the child herself.

The novel tightens and intensifies the scene, now set right after our little princess becomes fast friends with Mr. Carrisford. Miss Minchin, driven by anger, comes over to confront her annoying and too-smart drudge. The schoolmistress starts by threatening the girl with severe punishment, and ends up being reprimanded herself in various ways by the lawyer, by Mr. Carrisford, and even by Sara.

Things will go from bad to worse for Miss Minchin. Her sister, the timid Miss Amelia, falls apart and still ends up cowing her older sister. The following tertiary recognition drama isn’t in the original story:

“She saw through us both. She saw that you were a hard-hearted, worldly woman, and that I was a weak fool, and that we were both of us vulgar and mean enough to grovel on our knees for her money, and behave ill to her because it was taken from her — though she behaved herself like a little princess even when she was a beggar. She did — she did — like a little princess!” And her hysterics got the better of the poor woman, and she began to laugh and cry both at once, and rock herself backward and forward.

“And now you’ve lost her,” she cried wildly; “and some other school will get her and her money; and if she were like any other child she’d tell how she’s been treated, and all our pupils would be taken away and we should be ruined. And it serves us right; but it serves you right more than it does me, for you are a hard woman, Maria Minchin, you’re a hard, selfish, worldly woman!”

You’ll read in the dénouement a string of dramatic delights not offered by the original story. Books are remembered principally for their climaxes and their endings — at least with a well-handled climax. And recognition scenes serve as the most memorable way to move a book toward its end. But the author needs a good conflict to keep the reader from closing the book early, and we’ll discuss that in the next essay.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

August 3, 2016

On Books: Visions and Revisions (Part I)

by Alison Parker

Most people in fiction editing have trotted out the line “Show; don’t tell.” But how often does that line by itself make authors or editors improve in their craft?

I’m not denying that the line is great in theory. There’s a lot of great theory out there — start with Aristotle’s Poetics. Heck, if you deal with fiction, you have doubtless amassed quite a number of practical books on plot, character, emotion, description, and so on. I certainly have, but when I try to read these books, my eyes usually glaze over. The ideas might be practical, but they’re too often neither engaging nor inspiring. And that’s a big “fail.” It is important for authors and editors to understand how to create excitement in a reader, and how to make a reader want to continue to the end, whether the end is the end of the single book or the end of a twelve-book series. And it’s important to make authors and editors see and feel the principles and not just think them.

How to Teach Fiction?

If I ever found myself in front of a creative writing class, I’d use the old high school English teachers’ method of “compare and contrast” and make the students look at one of my favorite children’s books: A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who was once considered a leading light in realist fiction for adults and whose book The Secret Garden is still frequently taught in children’s literature classes. What should make that exercise interesting is that the book, which was published in 1905, started out as a magazine novella in 1888. And the original grew immeasurably over those intervening years. It’s not easy to find published books or stories that change so radically, and for the better, in less than two decades.

Major Changes: Character and Drama

You’ll find two major differences between the novella — Sara Crewe, or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s Boarding School — and the novel that it became seventeen years later. First, the heroine is much more sympathetic in the later telling. Second, and more important, the book has incorporated a lot more drama in the course of its expansion. Why? The author was asked to turn the initial story into a play, which began its run a couple of years before she expanded her story into a novel. In the three-act play (for a description, see Roderick McGillis’s A Little Princess: Gender and Empire, 5–7), new characters are added, principally little girls as friends and foils, and the rat that Sara tames in her dingy attic makes its debut. And scholars have pointed out that writing it helped Burnett to change the bare-bones tale of Sara’s growth and salvation into something much more gripping.

In the 1888 story, the heroine is a spoiled little princess, so to speak, with all the advantages of youth and wealth. In fewer than a thousand words, we read mainly dry narrative about her privileged childhood and her obscenely rich and doting but feckless father, Captain Crewe, who takes her reluctantly to Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in London because the climate in India can be brutal and Sara’s mother died long ago. Not many years later, he dies destitute, seemingly betrayed by his best friend. And so his beloved daughter is left to the mercy of the schoolmistress, who shows her no mercy once the money is gone. Those thousand words that open the original story run to less than a sixteenth of the whole. Only two times in the beginning narrative does anyone say anything, and those quotes can’t be called dialogue as no one responds.

When Burnett rewrote her tale, the beginning of the original story expanded to a third of the novel. And the space isn’t wasted. Though much of it is still expository, and with an omniscient narrator to boot, the narrator throws herself into the action.

The Princess Learns Politeness

Let’s consider the study of French, an important subject for all young ladies who wished to snare respectable husbands. In the novella, we hear almost nothing about the subject until the evil Miss Minchin says that Sara will soon be earning her keep by teaching the language to the youngest pupils. The newly impoverished princess is pissed off:

“I can speak French better than you, now,” said Sara; “I always spoke it with my papa in India.” Which was not at all polite, but was painfully true; because Miss Minchin could not speak French at all, and, indeed, was not in the least a clever person.

That’s not nice, and in the revision, we see the information dramatized in the second chapter, “A French Lesson.” We’re now in Sara’s first day of school, and the other students are fascinated as the show pupil, the little girl dressed up in absurd clothes by her indulgent father and whom Miss Minchin intends to trot around as proof that this seminary is higher class than it is, comes into the schoolroom and is seated in the place of honor. Lavinia, who once had that honor (and who had no name in the novella), is angry, of course, and that will play out later. But for now, the rigid schoolmistress makes unfortunate assumptions about Sara, and when Sara tries to say something, she’s shut off and forced to read an elementary French grammar. She doesn’t want to be nasty to Miss Minchin. But when the language teacher arrives, Sara speaks to him in fluent French in a desperate attempt to explain that she doesn’t have what Miss Minchin claimed was a childish prejudice against the language. Other pupils titter, and Miss Minchin, who had been afraid that everyone would learn about her inability to speak French, now starts to despise her prize pupil. And when Sara no longer appears to be a prize — Miss Minchin views everyone in terms of money — the schoolmistress’s anger increases the drama, and the conflict between her and her former show pupil keeps growing.

From Greed to Giving

Another striking difference in scene styling and in the heroine’s nature shows up in the character of Ermengarde. In the 1888 story, when Sara meets the overweight and introverted Ermengarde, our heroine thinks of the girl with contempt — until she sees the nice books that Ermengarde had received from her brilliant but pushy father.

There was also a fat, dull pupil, whose name was Ermengarde St. John, who was one of her resources. Ermengarde had an intellectual father, who, in his despairing desire to encourage his daughter, constantly sent her valuable and interesting books, which were a continual source of grief to her. Sara had once actually found her crying over a big package of them.

“What is the matter with you?” she asked her, perhaps rather disdainfully.

And it is just possible she would not have spoken to her, if she had not seen the books.

But in the novel, Sara is outraged at the bullying that Ermengarde has been subjected to, and the heroine takes the poor girl under her wings. The third chapter of the book is named “Ermengarde,” and Sara is all sweetness and sympathy to her unfortunate classmate, who can’t pronounce French to save her life.

When lessons were over and the pupils gathered together in groups to talk, Sara looked for Miss St. John, and finding her bundled rather disconsolately in a window-seat, she walked over to her and spoke. She only said the kind of thing little girls always say to each other by way of beginning an acquaintance, but there was something friendly about Sara, and people always felt it.

“What is your name?” she said.

To explain Miss St. John’s amazement one must recall that a new pupil is, for a short time, a somewhat uncertain thing; and of this new pupil the entire school had talked the night before until it fell asleep quite exhausted by excitement and contradictory stories. A new pupil with a carriage and a pony and a maid, and a voyage from India to discuss, was not an ordinary acquaintance.

“My name’s Ermengarde St. John,” she answered.

“Mine is Sara Crewe,” said Sara. “Yours is very pretty. It sounds like a story book.”

“Do you like it?” fluttered Ermengarde. “I—I like yours.”

The original story has excellent moments — without them, it wouldn’t have been published in the first place — but it doesn’t give us a suspenseful buildup to Sara’s second reversal of fortune, which the novel slices and dices up, and juices for all it’s worth. Instead, the novella puts this essential part of the plot, like the beginning, into narrative, not drama.

Although the “princess” story in its original form remains fascinating, rather on the order of tales someone just rattles off — “… and then she … and then she …” — it doesn’t engage your heart and your brain in the way the play-influenced revision and expansion does.

In this essay, I’ve focused mainly on the way Burnett increased the drama within scenes and helped turn a magazine story into what is considered a children’s classic. Next time we’ll treat something more important to the book’s reputation, effective plotting. After that, we’ll get back to the problem of character, both in Burnett’s works and further afield.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

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