Yesterday I shared my review of the wonderful The Testament of Vida Tremayne by Sarah Vincent, published in November 2014 by Three Hares Publishing. Today, I’m pleased to welcome the author as my guest on Being Anne, exploring the idea that characters read books too… over to you Sarah!
When it comes to characterization, writers are often advised to make lists of their protagonists’ likes and dislikes beforehand. Favourite meals, books, music, boxed sets all help to define character. I don’t use this approach myself, but when Anne suggested I write a feature focussing on each of the three women in The Testament of Vida Tremayne possibly using music or images, I thought aha, why not books?
Most of our book shelves will have at least one well-thumbed book that bears several re-reads. It may be a comfort read; the literary equivalent of macaroni cheese or bangers and mash, or it may be the kind that offers fresh insights at each sitting. Whether a novel, or poetry collection, or memoir, (and I know someone who regularly devours Screw Fix catalogues when he’s feeling low!) we tend to embrace our go-to reads, like old and trusted friends.
Given that The Testament of Vida Tremayne is very much about books: writing, reading, and writers’ lives, I had fun choosing a special read each for Vida, Rhiannon and Dory. Here’s what I came up with.
Vida – Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Taylor was considered ‘the writer’s writer’ mainly because of her immaculate cut-glass prose, but also her observant eye and insights into human nature. Vida loves this novel for two reasons. Firstly there’s the subject matter. The elderly widowed Mrs. Palfrey is all but abandoned by a brisk middle-aged daughter living in Scotland and forced to spend her twilight years in a London retirement hotel. Her fellow occupants continually boast about their wonderful sons, daughters and grandchildren. Vida is a deal younger than Mrs. Palfrey, but having been deserted by her husband and enduring a tetchy relationship with her only daughter Dory, she can’t help envisaging a similar lonely fate for herself. Yet Mrs. Palfrey’s spirited and gracious coping strategies are uplifting and give her heart.
Vida also finds the early and mid-twentieth century novelists like Taylor enormously restful and reassuring to read. Why? Because Vida’s publishers are leaning on her to switch genres from literary fiction to horror. In the cut-throat world of modern publishing where grip-lit holds sway and writers obsess about Amazon ratings, Vida finds it refreshing to dip back into a gentler era. A time when writers weren’t constrained but market forces, but wrote from the heart, secure in the knowledge that their publishers would remain loyal and build their readership.
Dory – Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton
Dory makes no secret of the fact that she doesn’t read fiction. In her first conversation with Rhiannon, and in order to forestall further bookish chat, she announces: ‘I’m afraid I don’t read fiction. I prefer facts.’ When Rhiannon soothes that there’s no shame in this, she goes on emboldened: ‘Some people would think my not reading fiction is a crime.’ She’s seen people visibly recoil when she’s said that before. Vida Tremayne’s daughter doesn’t read fiction? She doesn’t even read her mother’s work? Shocking!
Dory prefers non-fiction. When she isn’t flicking through Homes and Interiors Magazine, she snuggles down with her personal bible: Status Anxiety. Normally she isn’t big on navel-gazing, and philosophical stuff is way too pretentious for her liking, but she has to admit that de Botton bloke might have been writing this book for her!
She lies awake at night agonizing over all the things she doesn’t have, basic stuff that seems to fall into others’ laps with zero effort. Okay, her business isn’t doing too badly, but she’s worked damn hard to get to where she is, and at such personal cost. She can’t seem to keep a man for more than a month or two, and she can count her friends on one hand. Make that two fingers actually. And she hasn’t heard from those two for ages. Even her emails barely get answered. That de Botton got it right when he talked about the ‘secret dismay at the success of friends.’ Oh yes, she’s been there. Every time she hears of a job promotion or receives a wedding invitation her heart plummets. It’s reassuring to know she’s not alone. Maybe she should start up a website for fellow sufferers. Or perhaps not. She spends quite enough time plugging her relocation business on Social Media as it is.
Rhiannon – The Journals of Sylvia Plath
If you want to get inside, that is, deep inside the tortured, self-obsessed soul of the average fiction writer, and Rhiannon certainly does, then look no further. Except that Rhiannon’s heroine, Sylvia Plath was by no means average. Whenever she feels jaded, she dips into Sylvia’s diary entries. Surely there’s something among all this angst and turmoil which will give her insights into the creative process? Maybe some of Sylvia’s creative genius will even rub off on her?
Rhiannon has studied the 1950-1962 edition, an exact transcription of twenty-three journals and fragments owned by Smith College. When Sylvia complains of her efforts as ‘little artificial stories that get nothing of the feeling, the drama even of life’, oh, how she wishes she’d been on the scene in 1959. She might have helped Sylvia to free up her creativity, just as she hopes to help Vida now. How the world might have benefitted, from her, Rhiannon’s input!
Of course, Sylvia’s big mistake was in marrying Ted and having his children. An artist should be ready to sacrifice such domestic bliss for her art – look where it got Vida.
Rhiannon loves to gaze at the iconic picture of Sylvia on the jacket; the golden hair and generous knowing smile. It’s as if Sylvia stares right back out of the photo at her and knows. She understands all about mother-hate, ‘the panic-bird on the heart.’ If only she and Sylvia could have met. She’s sure they would have formed a lifelong bond. Also she could have warned her against Ted, and men in general. But now she must make do with Vida Tremayne. Ah well. Vida’s The Gingerbread House is one of her favourites, and she’s sure there is more from where that came from, given just a little encouragement.
Sarah, thank you – and what perfect choices!
Follow author Sarah Vincent on Twitter: she also has an excellent website where you can find out more about the author and her work.