This week it's all about British writer and editor, Marian Newell, whose first novel was inspired by childhood memories of the Cinque Ports and their lurid smuggling folklore.
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It’s All About Marian Newell
It’s All About Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’
This must be one of the greatest closing lines in fiction, quite an achievement when you remember that the book has a cracking opening line too. The words moved me to tears when I first read them in my late teens, and the nobility of the protagonist’s sacrifice retains its power for me still.
This book shaped my taste in fiction, making me seek grand themes and psychological depth. Most of all, it piqued my interest in motivation. I want to get to know characters as if they were real people, and I want to understand what they want and why they act as they do.
One of the grand themes in this story is redemption. It asks whether a worthless life can be redeemed by a single noble act. It also invites us to consider whether the sacrifice has less value because the life is worthless, a burden to the man who sacrifices it.
The quoted words are finely crafted, using the literary device anaphora — the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. This occurs throughout the book and underlines the recurring theme of doubles. There are the two cities of the title and the two characters so alike that they can be repeatedly mistaken for one another.
For me, though, the power of the quote is in the satisfying resolution it gives to the story. An ending that might have been unbearably sad is lifted by the fact that death holds no fear. There is utter confidence that the path taken will leave everyone, including the man who forfeits his life, better off.
A sense of closure remains important to me. I often find stories that end ambiguously to be unsatisfying. While recognising that there is value in personal interpretation, I usually prefer to know what the storyteller means rather than to discover my own meaning in their work.
It’s All About Me
A Devil’s Dozen by Marian Newell (2012)
This, my debut novel, is a fictionalised account of real events. It describes the rise and fall of a smuggling gang that operated on the Kent coast in the 1820s. The tale demanded a strong focus on historical detail and actual incidents but my own interest was more in the nature of the fourteen viewpoint characters. I wanted to use fiction as a tool to look beyond the recorded facts.
It struck me that any group of that size includes a variety of people, doing similar things but for a range of reasons. Having read as much as I could about the time and place, I considered how the men might have differed in their backgrounds and circumstances. The motivations of the characters that I created range from need to greed, from the wildly irrational to the coldly calculated.
My story is unlike A Tale of Two Cities in that it has a factual core and doesn’t impose specific themes on what took place. However, and with no comparison to Dickens’ mastery of the form, I do see ways in which my work was influenced by his. Much of the impact of the sacrifice in A Tale of Two Cities comes from its unexpected source. Our expectations are often confounded: people we consider reliable may let us down, while people we dismiss may surprise us. I tried to cast against type when I allocated actions derived from contemporary local rumours to the individuals I had characterised.
Returning to endings, the optimism of mine certainly owes a debt to his. I was mindful of the importance of opening and closing chapters and considered my personal favourites. It was Rebecca (‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’) and A Tale of Two Cities that sprang to mind.
My manuscript originally ended on a reflective and slightly sad note. During the editing process, I revised it to conclude in a more forward-looking way:
‘You sees that, boys? Paul? Tommy? You sees it?’
Tommy looked at Pierce, who closed his mouth and swallowed. They all stared at each other for a moment or two, then Pierce cleared his throat and shouted back.
‘We see it. By Christ, Quacks, we all see it.’
I had lacked the confidence to stop at this point but feedback made me realise that cutting what came afterwards would make the ending stronger. Readers would be able to see what the future held, just as my characters were seeing it.
I wonder if Dickens knew all along that his story would end with the uplifting sentiment we read in the final version. I suspect he probably did.