Saturday, 20 September 2014

'The Skull Beneath The Skin: The Nearness of Death in History' by Not A L Berridge

My husband has a cold. The house reeks of eucalyptus, the bins are full of tissues, and the air is loud with complaint. My sympathy of Day One has eroded into the irritation of Day Four, and it’s only a matter of time before I say, ‘Well, you’re not actually dying, are you?’ 

But of course that’s a modern luxury, and a hundred years ago I wouldn’t have dared say it. A ‘chill’ can lead to bronchitis, pleurisy, or pneumonia, and in the days before antibiotics these were often fatal. It might even be the precursor to influenza – and the pandemic of 1918-1920 killed between 3-5% of the entire world’s population. A mere cough could be the first sign of ‘consumption’, ‘phthisis’, ‘scrofula’, ‘Pott's disease’, or the ‘White Plague’ – the global killer we’ve now learned to call ‘tuberculosis’. Everyone knows that if a character in a historical drama is seen to cough, then the next scene is going to be a funeral.

'At Rest': The death of Little Nell in 'The Old Curiosity Shop' by George Cattermole
We still fear some of these things. TB is making a comeback, pandemics are always good for newspaper sales, and we are once again being advised to take precautions our grandparents took for granted. Yet the fact we need to be told to cover our mouths when we cough shows the astonishing degree of our modern complacency. The miracles of modern medicine have stripped away so many of our natural fears that we’ve come to see science as a shield against death itself.

But when we write historical fiction that shield has to be the first thing to go. There’s obviously huge variation in place and period, but awareness of sickness and mortality colours every one of them, and our characters can’t but share in it. How can they do otherwise when they’re seeing it every day?

'The Beggars' by Brueghal the Elder
And really they would be. There’ve been sick beggars on the streets since before even Roman times, and as late as the 17th century it was impossible to walk the length of the Champs Elysée and remain ignorant of the reality of blindness, paralysis, lameness, dropsy, or even disfiguring cancers. Nor was visible sickness restricted to the poor. Smallpox struck kings as well as paupers, and even Elizabeth I bore the scars of it on her face and hands as evidence that she had faced death and survived. Almost equally prevalent (especially in mainland Europe) were the terrible signs of syphilis, on which many medieval church gargoyles are deliberately modelled to show the deadly wages of sin.

Smallpox victim 1911 Illinois                 Bust of tertiary syphilis
But syphilis didn’t end in medieval times, and neither did most of these other horrors. Fast forward to the civilization of Victorian England and we can laugh at the grotesque minor characters populating Dickens’ novels – but the truth is that he was largely describing what he saw. Some deformities were caused by accidents or war wounds – eye-patches, wooden legs, and hooks for hands – but many others are immediately recognizable to doctors as the result of childhood illness or malnutrition. 

'The Internal Economy of Dotheboys Hall' from 'Nicholas Nickleby' by Phiz
Goitres were a consequence of iodine deficiency, ‘hunchback’ is kyphosis, often caused by poor childhood nutrition, bandy legs were a sign of rickets, while ‘cripples’ with atrophied limbs were probably victims of polio. Many of these conditions are still with us in the poorer countries, and when we look at those heartbreaking photographs of children with cleft lips and palates it’s hard to believe that not very long ago we’d have seen these in London too.

 All these things are an essential part of the ‘historical world’, and we often have enormous fun writing them. With In the Name of the King I was delighted to find the real character of Fontrailles was genuinely a ‘hunchback’, and only wish I’d had the space to develop the ways in which that affected his personality. I also took a hideously writerly pleasure in basing my fictional Comte de Vallon on a real-life syphilitic nobleman whose return to society was eased by Louis XIV requesting his courtiers ‘not to notice his having no nose.’ Anything out of the ordinary is grist to a novelist’s mill, and I was going to grind it all I could.

But sometimes it’s in the 'ordinary' that the real gold is buried. We can write historical novels where nobody gets ill at all, and yet the characters will still have been shaped by a world in which these things happen. Their perception of cruelty will be different, their ideas of fairness, even their concept of religion, and they will be constantly aware of their own mortality. Dreadful as they were, the hunchbacks and crooked legs were tokens of those who had survived, and served as a terrible reminder of the many who did not.

People could and did die of the most minor things, and the fact they were so imperfectly understood only added to the sense of a random destiny that could strike at any time. This 1665 Bill of Mortality raises far more questions than it answers, and while ‘sore legge’ might be tetanus, for instance, what are we to make of medical causes of death listed as ‘Bedridden’, ‘Suddenly’, or even ‘Grief’? Yet the one that brings home to me most powerfully the reality of the pre-antibiotic world is described in that ominously single word – ‘Teeth’.

And of course we have to show this awareness in our writing. We can’t have characters say modestly ‘It’s just a scratch’ when everyone would have known that a scratch could kill. We can’t even give them a quick bout of toothache and then forget about it. Ridiculous as it is, we even have to let most of our characters believe it’s possible to die of a broken heart.

But the risk that would have affected most people sooner or later is that of pregnancy, and we can’t ever take that lightly. Even today we know of the risks of miscarriage, and many couples won’t officially announce a pregnancy until the first three months are safely passed – but in the case of Louis XIV’s brother Philippe, the Queen was never acknowledged to have even been pregnant until the child was born and had stayed alive a full calendar month.

Madame de Sevigne by Lefebvre
The risk to the mother was almost as great, as we see in that figure of 23 childbed deaths in a week. In 1671 the famous French letter-writer Madame de Sévigné began a letter to her married daughter in this rather cryptic fashion:
'Today is the sixth of March. I beg you to tell me how you are. If you are well, you are ill, but if you are ill, then you are well. I hope, my child that you are ill, so that you will be in good health for at least some time to come.’

The mystery is clear once we realize the daughter was due to menstruate, and what her mother feared more than anything was another pregnancy.

But what I actually find most fascinating about that letter is the way phrases we now use as mere formulae had real meaning in the past. ‘Tell me how you are’ is not the standard ‘How are you?’ with which we greet each other today, usually hoping we won’t be told the answer. Those of us over a certain age still tend to begin letters with the polite ‘I hope you’re well’, but this has already come to signify a broader enquiry in which health plays little part.

1864 Civil War letter with standard opening
It was different in the 19th century. I included a letter in Into the Valley of Death which began with the then-standard phrase ‘I hope this finds you well as it leaves me’, but it wasn’t until a reader asked me about it that I began to see its real significance. Outside London, a letter could take days to reach the recipient, and the writer’s awareness of time reveals a very real concern for the risk of ill-health. The most they’ll commit to is ‘I’m well at the time of writing’, because they know perfectly well that in a week or so they may not be. This seems strange in a time when even the most deadly disease usually gives the sufferer at least a few more months of life – but in 1854 a man who wrote ‘I am well’ on Monday could be dead by Friday. It’s true the phrase is a standard one and would often have been used without conscious thought, but behind it is a mindset that knows the sword of Damocles can fall at any minute.

And this one phrase exemplifies two of the things I love most about writing historical fiction. The first is the everyday reality of a bygone world, which can give us not only great texture but also the kind of plot development unthinkable in a contemporary work. 

 My favourite example is in Pride and Prejudice, where Jane Bennet walks in the rain to a dinner with two desirable bachelors, and quickly develops a cold which makes her return impossible. The house is only three miles away from her own home, but she is of course too ill to be moved, and in such a condition that requires her equally marriageable sister Lizzy to come and attend her.
This is brilliant. True, if Jane’s cold had been anything like my husband’s then her hosts would have bundled her out of the house in two minutes flat, but if we assume the phlegmier stages were passed invisibly in the bedroom, then the plot mechanics are perfect – and I challenge anyone to devise a contemporary narrative which would achieve such a result.
But, as usual with Austen, there’s far more going on here than plot. Jane’s mother deliberately sent her daughter out in the rain in the hope of engineering this very situation, and Mr Bennet is only half-joking when he hopes she’ll find it a comfort if her daughter dies following her orders. Austen is of course writing about her own time, but she uses those perceptions to create both story and character unique to that age, and I'd love to be able to emulate her.

But the second aspect I love is the Sword of Damocles itself, and the way in which awareness of death gives an extraordinary intensity to life. Our own lives are too safe to imagine it easily, but I’ve found the most useful comparison is to wartime. When living through war we’re all at once back in a time when life is cheap, death can strike without warning, and the only moment there might ever be is now. We might normally find incomprehensible the religious fervour of bygone ages, but even an atheist prays when the house they’re sitting in is being bombed. We might laugh at the superstition of the past, but from verbal rituals to ‘lucky socks’, you’ll find no people more superstitious than soldiers in even a modern war.

Everything is more concentrated and intense. The friendship forged between men who face death together is far deeper than that between those who use the same coffee machine, and when time is short, then love and passion soar as never before. And people take risks. Mad, exhilarating, even heroic risks – because there is so little to lose. Live through war, and we begin to understand some of the heroic lunacy of even sixteenth century peacetime, when men and women risked their lives for power, for politics, for religion, and for love.

It's no coincidence that the most passionate romances are often set in war
I write war in my novels anyway, but I’d still want to study it for the insight it can give us into the past. War is a magic door that can take me right back in time, to a world where death lurks round every corner - and where there are far worse things to deal with than my husband’s cold. 

Well, OK, I am A L Berridge really, just filling in a gap in the schedule. And I hope you noticed I didn't mention Crimea even once...

Friday, 19 September 2014

Dial 'M' for Murder: the role of the telephone in 20th century film and fiction - by Christina Koning

Having just published a novel – Line of Sight (Arbuthnot Books, 2014) – in which the telephone plays a key role, I’ve been thinking about the significance of this particular piece of technology, invented (or at least patented) in 1876, by Alexander Graham Bell, but only in common domestic use for around a hundred years. It wasn’t until after the First World War, that the telephone became ubiquitous in middle-class households; right up until the late 1960s in Britain, there were still those who, for reasons of economy, were obliged to make their calls from public telephone boxes. I can still recall when these were activated by the magical pressing of ‘Button A’, followed by the insertion of the necessary coins, to connect the call. ‘Button B’ could be pressed to return the coins, if it wasn’t possible to connect the call (i.e. if no one answered).

As late as the early 1970s, it was not uncommon for people to share a ‘party line’ with another subscriber, affording regular opportunities of ‘listening-in’ to others’ conversations – a privilege of which the switchboard operator could always avail herself (and they were nearly always female), if she felt so inclined. Calls could be – and frequently were – ‘cut off’ at a crucial moment. Love affairs could be thrown into crisis, financial ruin precipitated, and even murder committed, by means of this most seductive, but also potentially treacherous, instrument.

All this offered rich potential for novelists and film-makers – in fact, it’s hard to imagine how the literature and cinema of the mid-to-late twentieth century could have managed without the telephone – thedeus ex machina whose ringing could herald delight – but more often, meant disaster. Think of any Humphrey Bogart film – The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye – and you think of Bogart as private detective Philip Marlowe, sitting in his office, with his feet on the desk and a fifth of whisky in the side-drawer, talking on the phone to whichever dimwitted police sergeant or duplicitous dame he’s currently trying to outsmart.

Think of Grace Kelly, in Hitchcock’s Dial ‘M’ for Murder, hearing the phone ring in the study, and going to answer it – unaware that she is about to confront her would-be murderer. Or, skipping forward a couple of decades, but staying with the film-noir mood, think of Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, in Chinatown, with sticking-plaster on his nose and a telephone receiver clamped to his ear, trying to make sense of the lies and half-truths he’s been fed about the Mulwray case. Yes, the telephone and the murder mystery were made for each other.
There are a number of reasons for this. One (to stay with cinema a moment) is that the telephone and the cinema are roughly contemporaneous. Both represent the ‘modern’ world of change, speed, transience. A letter takes time to write – and read. A phone call can be made in a few minutes. Similarly, the narrative pace of a novel can seem slow, by contrast with the quick-fire cutting between scenes to be found in cinematic story-telling. And one other obvious reason why phone calls are so important a part of most screenplays is that they offer a very condensed way of imparting information. When the plot is a thriller, this is all the more essential. Keeping the suspense going means not slowing down your story with unnecessary explanations. Dialogue – in films and novels of the 1930s and after – is markedly crisper, snappier, and more concise than that to be found in, say, your average nineteenth century novel.

Which brings me to my ‘top ten’ of fictional telephone conversations. It’s no accident that they all belong to the same period: from a few years after the First World War to a decade or so after the Second World War (roughly, 1925 – 1965) – a Golden Age, when the telephone was essential to communication. And what telephones they were! None of your flimsy little hand-held devices, but large, sculptural Bakelite objects – usually black – the sound of whose ringing was full of foreboding and whose receivers felt heavy as lead in the hand. These (and the ‘Candlestick’ instruments which preceded them, one of which features on the cover of Line of Sight) had a dramatic presence in their own right. No wonder they so often appeared as harbingers of doom in the darker films of the inter- and post-war periods.

So here’s Chandler, in The Long Goodbye (1953):

I was about ready to hit the hay when Detective-Sergeant Green of homicide called me up.

‘Thought you might like to know that they buried your friend Lennox a couple of days ago right in that Mexican town where he died. A lawyer representing the family went down there and attended to it. You were pretty lucky this time, Marlowe. Next time you think of helping a pal skip the country, don’t.’

‘How many bullet holes did he have in him?’

‘What’s that?’ he barked. Then he was silent for a space. Then he said rather too carefully: ‘One, I should say. It’s usually enough when it blows a guy’s head off…’

This hard-bitten, laconic mood is even more pronounced in Simenon’s 1931 story, The Bar on the Seine. Here, as in other police procedurals of the era, conversations – whether carried out on the telephone or otherwise – have a staccato, minimalist quality. These are not people who waste words, or indulge in fancy phrase-making. For them, the telephone is the perfect medium to convey the bleak truths they need to convey. In this story, Maigret finds himself defending a man condemned to the guillotine:

Maigret was talking to the examining magistrate on the phone.

‘Hello! Yes! Just give me another ten minutes… His name? I don’t know yet… Yes, of course I’m serious. Do I ever joke about these things?’

He put down the receiver and started walking up and down his office.

That’s as emotional as Maigret ever gets. And – just to round off this trio of thrillers, before moving on to other kinds of telephone calls in fiction, here’s Le Carré's 1964 novel, Call for the Dead, in which George Smiley makes his first appearance, investigating the mysterious death of a former agent:

The telephone was ringing upstairs. Smiley got up.

‘Excuse me – that will be my office. Do you mind?’

Smiley walked slowly upstairs in a state of complete bewilderment. What on earth should he say to Marston now?

He lifted the receiver, glancing mechanically at the number on the apparatus.

‘Walliston 2944.’

‘Exchange here. Good morning. Your eight-thirty call.’

‘Oh – Oh yes, thank you very much.’

He rang off, grateful for the temporary respite.

This call – like many to be found in detective fiction – turns out to have a bearing on the plot, which isn’t always the case in every novel. Some telephone conversations seem to have no apparent point at all, other than to tell you what kind of characters you’re dealing with – and that they do very well. Take this passage from Vile Bodies, Waugh’s 1930 satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ of Jazz Age London. We really learn all we need to know about Adam and his inamorata, Nina, from this bright, seemingly vacuous, conversation:

Presently the telephone by Adam’s bed began ringing.

‘Hullo, yes.’

‘Lady to speak to you… Hullo, is that you, Adam?’

‘Is that Nina?’

‘How are you my darling?’

‘Oh, Nina…’

‘My poor sweet, I feel like that, too. Listen, angel. You haven’t forgotten that you’re going to see my papa to-day, have you… or have you? I’ve just sent him a wire to say you’re going to lunch with him. D’you know where he lives?’

‘But you’re coming too?’

‘Well, no, I don’t think I will if you don’t mind… I’ve got rather a pain.’

Or consider this very different, but no less eloquent, piece of character description – from Elizabeth Bowen’s 1948 novel, The Heat of the Day, in which the loving, if slightly exasperated, relationship between a mother and her grown-up son, on leave from the war, is conveyed entirely through one side of a telephone conversation:

‘Hullo?’ she said –  whoever it was had failed to press Button A. Then – ‘Oh – you – oh, darling!… You are, are you? For how long?… However, that’s better than nothing. But why didn’t you tell me? Have you had any dinner?… Yes, I’m afraid that might be best: I don’t think I’ve got anything in the flat. How I wish you’d told me… And directly after that you’ll come straight here?… Of course; naturally; don’t be so idiotic… Yes, there is just at the moment, but there soon won’t be… No, no one you know… Soon, then – as soon as ever you can!’

She hung up, but remained to black-out her bedroom…’

Of course this passage tells us a great deal more than the fact that Stella loves her son. Because the conversation is being overheard by a man she has every reason to fear – the government agent, Harrison, in charge of delving into the past of Stella’s lover, Robert. Harrison, it transpires, is in love with Stella. All, or at least some, of this is conveyed in that superbly understated ‘No, no one you know’, in answer to her son’s (implied) question as to whether anyone is there with her at that moment.

It’s nuances such as these which make telephone conversations in books and films (and plays) so compelling. There are so many layers of meaning, and shades of intonation – all put across to the listener, and of course the reader, in the fewest possible words. Still sticking with the mood of wartime paranoia, consider this telephone conversation from Greene’s The Ministry of Fear (1943), in which a man driven half mad by guilt after the death of his wife, reaches out to another lost soul:

‘I want to speak to Miss Hilfe.’

‘Who is that?’

‘A friend of hers.’ A disapproving grunt twanged the wires. He said sharply,’Put me through please,’ and almost at once he heard the voice which if he had shut his eyes and eliminated the telephone-box and ruined Holborn he could have believed was his wife’s. There was really no resemblance, but it was so long since he had spoken to a woman, except his landlady or a girl behind a counter, that any feminine voice took him back… ‘Please. Who is that?’

‘Is that Miss Hilfe?’

‘Yes. Who are you?’

He said his name as if it were a household word. ‘I’m Rowe.’

There was such a long pause that he thought she had put the receiver back; he said, ‘Hullo. Are you still there?’


‘I wanted to talk to you.’

‘You shouldn’t ring me.’

‘I’ve nobody else to ring…’

The bleakness of the last line is characteristic of Greene’s style, of course, but it is also typical of many such moments of communication – or non-communication – in works of fiction of the period. Wartime London (note the glancing reference to ‘ruined Holborn’ in the above) was a place of darkness and shadows; of transients, ‘passing in the night’, on their way to unknown destinations. Here, from Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, published in 1941 and subtitled, with grim humour, ‘A story of darkest Earl’s Court’ – is the following exchange between the hapless and hopeless George Harvey Bone (one of those characters who is always referred to by his full, and rather awkward, name), and Netta, the mercenary minx with whom he is desperately in love:

He pressed button A and heard his pennies fall. He said ‘Hullo.’

‘Hullo,’ she said. ‘Yes!’

She was in a temper all right. He could tell because there was an exclamation mark, instead of a note of interrogation, after her ‘Yes’. Funny how she got into these tempers – after being so peaceful and saying ‘Perhaps it’s because he’s so big that he’s so silly’ the night before – but oh, how characteristic! He knew his Netta all right by now.

‘Oh, hullo, Netta,’ he said in studiedly polite and and gentle tones, though of course this would only add to her fury. ‘This is me.’

‘What? Who is it?…’

‘This is me. George.’


‘Have I interrupted you in your bath or something?’

‘No, I was asleep. What do you want?’

‘Oh, I’m awfully sorry. I was ringing up about today – that’s all.’

‘What do you mean – “today”?’

‘I mean this evening.’

‘What do you mean – “this evening”? What about this evening?’

And so the ghastly conversation drags on, with poor George getting himself increasingly tied in knots, and the poisonous Netta pretending not to understand what he is trying to say, but understanding it all too well. As often as not, telephone conversations in films and books can show us relationships that are not working, as well as those that are. In this passage, from Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925), the ringing of an – unanswered – telephone says all there is to say about a marriage that has gone sour:

The telephone rang inside, startlingly, and as Daisy shook her head decisively at Tom the subject of the stables, in fact all subjects, vanished into air. Among the broken fragments of the last five minutes at table I remember the candles being lit again, pointlessly, and I was conscious of wanting to look squarely at every one, and yet to avoid all eyes. I couldn’t guess what Daisy and Tom were thinking, but I doubt if even Miss Baker, who seemed to have mastered a certain hardy scepticism, was able utterly to put this fifth guest’s shrill metallic urgency out of mind…’

The unanswered call is of course from Tom’s mistress, about whom the ‘sceptical’ Jordan Baker has just been telling Nick, the narrator. Sometimes, a telephone only has to ring to bring about a change of mood – sharply conveyed, in this instance, by Nick’s irrational desire to look his fellow guests in the face, ‘and yet avoid all eyes’.

Even though the ‘shrill metallic’ sound of the telephone seems made for such moments in fiction, bringing with it unwelcome news, as often as not, it would be a pity to end this little survey of best telephonic exchanges in novels without a couple which aren’t to do with murder or mayhem. So here is a typically winsome exchange, from E.F. Benson’s Lucia’s Progress (1935), in which the eponymous Mayoress of Tilling and all-round social butterfly, Emmeline Lucas, talks to her darling friend and confirmed bachelor, Georgie Pillson, (who is feeling rather out-of-sorts):

‘I’m beginning to see my way,’ she thought, and the way was so absorbing that she had not heard the telephone bell ring, and now Grosvenor came in to say that Georgie wanted to speak to her. Lucia wondered whether Foljambe had seen her peeping in at his window this afternoon and had reported this intrusion, and was prepared, if this was the case and Georgie resented it, not exactly to lie about it, but to fail to understand what he was talking about until he got tired of explaining. She adopted that intimate dialect of baby-language with a peppering of Italian words in which they often spoke together.

‘Is zat ‘oo, Georgino mio?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ said Georgie in plain English.

‘Lubly to hear your voice again. Come sta? Better I hope.’

‘Yes, going on all right, but very slow. All too tarsome. And I’m getting dreadfully depressed seeing nobody and hearing nothing.’

Lucia dropped dialect.

‘But, my dear, why didn’t you let me come and see you? You’ve always refused.’

‘I know.’

There was a long pause. Lucia with her psychic faculties alert after so much Bridge felt sure he had something more to say, and like a wise woman she refrained from pressing him. Clearly he had rung her up to tell her something…’

And here, from a novel whose actual publication date of 1960 doesn’t prevent its belonging unquestionably to the 1920s – P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves in the Offing – is the way that telephones ought always to be answered:

I was about to reach for the marmalade, when I heard the telephone tootling out in the hall and rose to attend to it.

‘Bertram Wooster’s residence,’ I said, having connected with the instrument. ‘Wooster in person at this end. Oh hullo,’ I added, for the voice that boomed over the wire was that of Mrs Thomas Portarlington Travers of Brinkley Court, Market Snodsbury, near Droitwich – or, putting it another way, my good and deserving Aunt Dahlia. ‘A very hearty pip-pip to you, old ancestor,’ I said, well pleased, for she is a woman with whom it is always a privilege to chew the fat.

‘And a rousing toodle-oo to you, you young blot on the landscape,’ she replied cordially. ‘I’m surprised to find you up as early as this. Or have you just got in from a night on the tiles?’

I hastened to rebut this slur…’

It’s passages like these, with all their economy and wit, which make one regret the passing of the Golden Age of Telephones. A rousing toodle-oo to you, too.