Wednesday, September 30, 2009


No, this is not a post about what it takes to write a book on deadline, though discipline certainly plays a part. I wouldn't dare write about that topic until I've finished my next manuscript. Instead, the discipline I refer to is the book, Discipline, written by Mary Brunton and published in 1815.

Discipline was very popular in its day. Jane Austen made fun of Brunton's first book, Self-Control, for its improbable plot saying, "I do not know whether Laura's passage down her American River is not the most natural, possible, everyday thing she ever does." But Self-Control was a bestseller.

Discipline was Brunton's second book and unlike her first, it takes place in a world much closer to that of our Regency novels, at least for the first half which, I must admit here is all of the book I could get through.

Because unlike some other treasures rescued from obscurity, Discipline is one of those novels whose appeal is not timeless--whose appeal, is in fact entirely lacking, even for a devoted student of the period. After fruitlessly hunting for little tidbits about daily life she can work into her own prose the Devoted Student is very likely to toss it away as a lost cause.

But that isn't really fair to the book. Discipline is full of little touches that teach us not about the material details of life in her day but its psychological texture. It is just that none of what it tells us about that psychology is useful to the modern novelist writing stories set in the Regency, because Brunton's effect on the modern reader is to remind us how fundamentally alien the world of the Regency was, psychologically, to us here now and how utterly off the mark we are when we imagine the Regency Shared World we so love.

Piety underlies Brunton's work, indeed her tone seemed to me to be what we generally consider "Victorian" as it is dominated by a deep belief that we must strive to overcome innate vices and become better people because at any moment we might die and when we do we face a stern judge and a terrifying possibility of punishment.

This separates her definitively from most of us here in the 21st century who live in a world where most of the time we can ignore the precariousness of life and live as if we will all live forever, or at least will if we eat right, hit the gym, and take the right supplements. In our world, when someone young dies, we greet the event with shock, dismay and even horror. In Brunton's such a death was exactly what you would expect and provided an opportunity to rededicate oneself to the hard work needed to prepare for one's own sudden call to heaven. Even though this is a Christian perspective, it is very different in feel from the way today's Christians would write. Brunton would have looked with horror on prosperity ministries. Her good Christians are largely poor Christians and this is not accidental.

Brunton died in childbirth at the age of 40, three years after publishing her second novel. Knowing this, we can conclude that her world view with its focus on preparing for death was not a morbid obsession but a realistic assessment, especially for a woman.

Jane Austen's letters are filled with references to death in childbirth, explicit and veiled, but unlike the case in Brunton's book where deaths abound, young people don't die in the world Austen created. Even on her own death bed, Austen entertained herself making fun of the day's real estate developers in the unfinished Sanditon, rather than meditating on her sins or urging her reader to learn from her mistakes--the basic theme of the story told by the narrator of Discipline.

Reading Brunton is tough. She sets her story among the ballrooms and parlors of the wealthy. Her heiress heroine is betrayed by a money-grubbing sprig of the nobility. But that storyline is almost obscured by the sermonizing that accompanies it.

Still, I wonder sometimes if books like this one better reflect the real feelings the people who inhabited an Age rather than those that are timeless. Brunton's obsessional spiritual perfectionism is evident in diaries written by non-literary women who lived in the same time period. Her self-examination is characteristic of the writings of most women until the late 19th century. It was then that massive public health projects and a growing understanding of germ theory started whittling down the horrifying death rate that the world had taken for granted up until then.

I love the fantasy today's novelists have created and set in the English Regency period. But as a student of human life, I think it helps to remember every now and then that in 1815 marriage, to no matter how romantic a Duke, brought with it the likelihood of experiencing anywhere from 10 to 23 life threatening pregnancies unless one's husband succumbed young--Clara Schumann had a mere 7 children before her husband died in her early 30s. Of those children one must expect one in three to die young, perhaps more.

The mind set of a person living in that kind of environment is impossible for us to recover. Obviously, people dealt with it different ways: By drinking themselves insensible and gambling as if there was no tomorrow--as well there might not be, by constructing elaborate mental defenses rich in wit, or like Brunton, by attempting to prepare for the inevitable in a way shaped by the religious beliefs of the time.

The ladies waltzing at Almack's probably read, and enjoyed, Discipline. After doing so, some may have questioned the frivolity of their life and spent a moment at least pledging to do better. That would have pleased Mary Brunton, though she probably reminded herself, pride goeth before a fall. One wonders what she would make of our day's novels set in Regency high society.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Invented or True? When Imagination Hits on Something Real

As I work on my next novel something really strange keeps happening. I'll invent something, start researching, and discover that the thing I invented, even if it sounds far-fetched, is grounded in reality.

I made up one character and gave him a job title, only to read in an obscure history book about someone just like him--with a very similar job title. This occurred in a context I had never researched before, so it wasn't that I'd learned about him in the past and forgot it.

Then I came up with an idea that could provide a nice way of resolving an important exterior plot point. The only problem was that for it to work the astrological charts of two historical personages would have to fit some very narrow parameters--down to the times of day they were born. I figured if they didn't, since I was writing a novel, I'd just glide over the astrology part and tell the story.

Except that when I found the personages' birth data it turned out both of them were born exactly at the time of day when they'd have to be born for my plot device to be true.

It's all very strange. Almost as strange as the feeling many writers report that their characters are real and that they tell us their stories rather than being artificial constructs we invent to tell stories we want to tell.

Have you had the experience of making up something out of thin air that turns out to be something that really happened to a real person you knew nothing about?