I’ve been thinking about originality in art lately. I thought about it quite a bit when I read Patricia Wynn’s The Parson’s Pleasure (originally published by Harlequin Regency in 1988, republished as an e-book by Belgrave House). In some ways, this particular book’s “unoriginality” worked for me, and in some ways, it didn’t. “For me” being the key words here. [Oh, and to talk about this, I’m going to say some spoilery things.]
I often turn to “Regency trads” as comfort reading, and part of the comfort is in familiarity. I find tropes I enjoy in these books, so even a not-so-great trad can satisfy me. On the other hand, in a sub-genre where I don’t care for many of the popular tropes, like paranormal, a book has to do something different from the norm for me to like it (that’s why I don’t read it often).
Investing in Austen Derivatives
The opening of Parson’s Pleasure read as if Wynn had torn a couple of Austen novels into confetti, shaken them up in a bag, and spilled them out to form a new pattern. Derivative, yes, but in a way that felt playfully allusive rather than boringly over-familiar or ripped off. Heroine Claire’s mother rushes in to announce the arrival of a new rector. He’s single! What fun to speculate on whether he’ll do for Claire’s cousin Lydia! The rector’s name is Mr. Bennett. Lydia’s father is so deep in debt he’s had to rent out his estate and move to a cottage on Claire’s father’s land. But he doesn’t want to do his duty and visit the rector. Ping! ping! It’s an Austen mash-up. I was sucked right in.
But then I got bored, partly because there were some familiar elements that Wynn didn’t really make her own. Claire and Christopher are too perfectly perfect. Claire is presented as unusual for her time: she loves to read, isn’t much interested in society or making a grand marriage. Therefore, better than every other silly lady (except her mother–Claire’s loving, sensible and supportive parents are a nice departure from the Austen canon). And yet Claire’s fab outfits are described in endless detail. (An aside: when these silly ladies retire to the drawing room after dinner, they don’t gossip. They discuss “the Church, the merits of one set of sermons over another, the most recent works undertaken–in short, anything of a pious nature that could contribute to the self-importance of the teller.” Are you fraking kidding me? [Also, are you annoyed yet by my frequent parenthetical asides? I am. Blogging has made me aware of this bad habit, but I can’t break it.)
Anyhow, Christopher wanted a career in politics, but his cousin and guardian the Earl of Avonley made him go into the Army, then the church. So he crusades for the poor of the parish. Claire and Christopher fall in love, but she’s got money and he doesn’t. He’s worried that his unpopular political opinions would make his wife an outcast so oh noes, he can’t marry Claire. Or is it because he thinks she wants to marry Lord Babcock instead? Or because his cousin the Earl hates him? This is Wynn’s first book, and she didn’t seem fully in control of the plot. At a certain point, I began to worry that this would be resolved by having the cousin conveniently die and Christopher inherit. And guess what happens? That’s a trope I don’t enjoy. If Christopher and Claire had had to be as daringly different as they kept bragging about being, and stick together through the consequences, this would have been a far more interesting book.
Then there’s the Austenesque moment that didn’t work for me: Lord Babcock, who’s long dutifully courted Claire but falls for her cousin Lydia at first sight, waltzes with Lydia at a ball. Since the whole neighborhood thinks he and Claire are an item, there’s a lot of staring when Claire’s left on the sidelines. Christopher swoops in to save her: “Claire was thrilled by the gallantry of his action. She blushed with lowered eyes.” Hello, Mr. Knightley and Harriet! Except that Claire is more Emma than Harriet; she doesn’t want Babcock and is annoyed that everyone thinks she does, so wouldn’t she be happy about his open interest in another? She’s strong-minded and independent; is a little staring going to kill her? This scene felt derivative of Austen in a bad way–it was almost a straight lift, but the emotions that made sense for Harriet Smith didn’t fit Claire Oliver.
Showing and Telling
Parson’s Pleasure breaks the “show, don’t tell” rule a lot when it comes to the characters’ emotions. Take this passage, for instance:
It was remarkable to him the speed with which their friendship was forming. He cautioned himself that he would need to be on his guard to avoid falling for those understanding blue eyes. He reminded himself of his position, and his expression became so grim as to disconcert the lady on his right.
I have mixed feelings about the show-me rule. Plenty of “classic” authors I love tell.
Here’s Austen: “in Darcy’s breast there was a tolerable powerful feeling towards her, which soon procured her pardon.” All tell. In Austen or in George Eliot, telling works for me because the ironic, comic, moralizing, or philosphizing narrative voice is so important: what the narrator says about the characters is often far more interesting than what they’re doing and thinking. Most fiction, though, is not like that. This felt flat to me quite often.
But there were still moments when I got that little thrill in my stomach that is part of why I read romance. I don’tthink that those moments were any less “tell-y” than the lines I quoted above. It’s just that I filled in the emotions of the characters for myself. Tumperkin/Joanna Chambers used to talk a lot on her blog about
How the reader is absorbed (or not) by the book and the extent to which the reader is doing something active rather than passive. The way readers fill gaps and mentally re-write what they read, innovating and weaving.
I think Parson’s Pleasure was satisfying to me partly because I was open to doing that filling and weaving. There was enough in the book that appealed to me (thanks to my personal history, I have a soft spot for parsons and women who read) that I was willing to fill in the gaps.
A Twitter-friend and I were talking about how we can read books that others (sometimes many others) have raved about as so emotional and/or so hot, and be left thinking “huh?” because the book seemed totally flat to us, the characters wooden. And we speculated that the difference may lie in what the reader brings to the book, whether the basic emotional situation appeals to her, so she can project some of her own feelings onto it. (This recent review by Sarah Frantz and the first comment on it are a good example of these disjunctive experiences).
I suspect a lot of our judgments (or at least mine) about whether a book feels “fresh” or “original” enough in its use of derivative elements comes down not to some objective standard but to whether “it worked for me.” Parson’s Pleasure? Meh. But I really liked Wynn’s A Pair of Rogues.