Once upon a time – not long after our shared College years, I believe – my friend Fenella and I discovered a mutual liking for Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. Now I’m sure you know how Shirley is rather the Cinderella among Charlotte’s novels – her one historical, written, at least in part, as a form of escapism while her siblings died one after another, and generally regarded as a lesser oddity.
Still, what can I say? I like it, with its background of faraway Napoleonic wars, and of Luddite unrest at home. I even like the unevenness of the whole. And I like the characters – even more than the eponymous girl (a heavily fictionalised portrait of Charlotte’s sister Emily), the quieter Caroline Helstone, and half-Belgian businessman Robert Moore.
Now, it’s not exactly easy to find fellow Shirley lovers. Fenella having gone through her own Brontë period, and being nothing if not thorough, I wasn’t surprised to find she’d read Shirley with the rest. That she’d liked it was another matter, though, and I remember we both plunged with relish into a discussion of the book, on a warm summer night in Barcellona, of all places.
We soon found out that we each had a different favourite Moore brother: while I liked troubled Robert, who loves the penniless Caroline, but tries to woo Shirley, whose money could save his floundering textile mill, Fenella preferred upright Louis, who hides his love for Shirley because his high principles won’t let him live off the money of a rich wife.
“Louis is a principled man,” Fenella would say. “And I admire his scruples and his quest for independence.”
“Yes, yes,” I’d answer. “Quite admirable – but not much of a story. Look at Robert, instead, who knows that what he is doing is ugly, but forces himself to do it all the same, for the sake of his mill, and his siblings, and his workers…”
“Still, he does bad things. Louis is a much better man.”
“But Robert is a much better character.”
And this is where we realised that we were talking about different things. And I was delighted to find that Fenella considered and judged Charlotte’s characters the way she would flesh and bone people. Isn’t this what we all try to accomplish, when we write characters? Fenella, on the other hand, huffed at the discovery that I did not – or at least, a part of my mind was always taken with the cogs and wheels of the story, rather than the story itself.
“Don’t you ever let yourself enjoy a story for the sake of it?” she asked.
And I tried to explain that for me part of the enjoyment is indeed the exploration of cogs and wheels – but perhaps… perhaps it is also true that I have lost, at some point, the ability to sit in the audience, so to say. To experience the truth created by the author without being aware of the ways the author created (or failed to create) it. To be entirely lost in a story…
Once I met again a pupil from a writing course, and he laughingly told me I’d ruined him for life. “I’ve never read the same way, since,” he said. “I’ve never watched a movie – why, not even a commercial without trying to see how it worked…” Very much what Fenella said that night in Barcellona, isn’t it?
What do you say, o Readers? Are you writers, too? Do you ever miss that kind of lost story-innocence?