Wednesday 10 June 2015

Susanna Clarke's collection of short stories (The Ladies of Grace Adieu, 2006)

Having absolutely loved her novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

I immediately read Susanne Clarke's only other book: a collection of short stories called The Ladies Of Grace Adieu.

This was a very interesting experience, because the first story - from which the collection gets its title, was - in my opinion - a worthless piece of gimmickry. It is a contrived piece of early 19th century pastiche, like an exercise done for a writing class. In the collection, it was followed by the equally futile On Lickerish Hill which is Rumpelstiltskin done as a seventeenth century pastiche.  

This is interesting because the first story was published in 1996 and the second in 1997, which presumably suggests that the author was in her middle forties when she wrote them. If I had seen these stories at the time, given that the author was middle-aged, and she had asked for my advice; I would have told her to forget about writing a novel; because although she was technically skilled, she apparently had nothing to say.

It would seem unlikely that somebody at her time of life would somehow 'find her subject' and become consumed by it sufficiently to write a great and big novel.

But, of course, I would have been completely wrong! And it just goes to show... something or another.^

A year later she published Mrs Mabb which is extremely good, and just swept me along; and in 2000 she published Mr Simonelli, or The Fairy Widower which is even better. But by then she was at work on 'Strange and Norrell' and - apparently - put more than a decade into that single novel, which gave it the depth and reality that make it stand-out.

Something happened! Either she found her subject, and it took her over; or she was picked-out and visited by that genius whose inspiration enabled her to write Strange and Norrell - not for her benefit, but for ours.


^My English Literature MA supervisor had, earlier in his career, taught the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney at Queen's University, Belfast. The undergraduate Heaney had shown my supervisor some of his poems; and my supervisor had, apparently - legendarily, advised Heaney that he had no talent for poetry and should give-it-up.

I suppose the lesson concerning creative endeavors is something on the lines of Nobody Knows Anything -


David said...

As a fan of the fantasy genre I wonder if you are you familiar with the work of Neil Gaiman? I imagine you would be interested in the mythological, religious and animistic themes...particularly in novels like Neverwhere, American God's or Anansi Boys. He also co - authored Bad Omens with Terry Pratchett, whom I know you enjoy.

Bruce Charlton said...

@D- I have read a few Neil Gaiman, including twice starting to read Good Omens, but I think he is on a different wavelength from me.