What color is Jane Austen’s Eliza Bennet hair? How is the beauty of Henry James’ Isabel Archer “unexpected”? As readers, we are given the briefest account of the looks of these imaginary young women. But there is no doubt that their creators intended to convey a powerful sense of their attractiveness – and that they managed to do so with minimal information about their appearance.
Every reader of fiction has a vivid mental image of the characters they read about. Often, this image can be as powerful as the memory of an acquaintance or friend. Hence the particular feeling of alienation when film or television adaptations feature actors who do not embody our own particular vision of the character (Keira Knightley as Lizzie Bennet? Escape!)
So there is something unexpected about novelist Sebastian Faulks’ recent account at the Cheltenham Literature Festival of how criticism of his portrayal of female characters had led him to avoid portraying Lena, a main character in his latest novel, Snow country. Instead, readers should infer its physical presence from oblique details.
As a novelist who has been praised (by a female reviewer) for his “characteristic tenderness towards female characters,” it is disconcerting to find Faulks applying this problematic phrase, “the male gaze” to his writing. There are, it is true, a number of distinguished contemporary novelists who could use a touch of Faulksian self-criticism (including the one much appreciated in the recent novel in which his hero feels his “sphincter loosen” at the sight of “Small breasts under the silk [dressing-gown]”.
But great writers have always used physical description precisely as suited their purposes to delineate character. George Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver, throwing back her hair from her eyes with “the air of a little Shetland pony” tells us everything we need to know about this steadfast young person. And recently rereading Anna Karenina, I was surprised to find a detailed description of her appearance: black velvet dress, pansy garland, pearl necklace and all. “Her charm,” writes Tolstoy, “lay precisely in the fact that her personality always stood out from her dress”.
It is old-fashioned (bordering on heresy) to say this, but the real issue is not whether novelists should stay in their way when it comes to portraying experience, but how they do it well. Tolstoy offered a rich description of his heroine; Austen a minimum. Both are always read with passionate engagement. Thank goodness, then, for the wisdom of Booker Prize-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo, who adamantly called the idea that writers shouldn’t exercise the essential fictional muscle known as the imagination “nonsense”. .
Take the cookie
Recent correspondence in the The telegraph of the day Letters Pages touched on the important topic of unnecessary cookies. Rich Tea cookies, in particular, struggled because of their dreary blandness.
It is strange that these characterless records hold their place in the supermarket shelves so resolutely – you have to love them (see also Cool Biscuits, those scourges of my childhood snacks). Friends from the West Country, who feed rich teas to cattle in an adjacent field, assure me they are a cattle favorite.
Meanwhile, like everything fule kno, Fox’s Party Rings are premium cookies.