How To Live In Your Favourite Book

Not, I hasten to add, in a cheesy cheap merchandise kind of way, but in a altogether richer, more creative and satisfying way.

“We don’t just read a great book, we inhabit it.” So begins Novel Interiors: Living in Enchanted Rooms Inspired By Literature, by Lisa Borgnes Giramonti. She identifies six sorts of literary decor:
cottage cosy (Austen, Dickens, Alcott…),
classic elegance (Thackeray, Waugh, Wharton…),
earthy & natural (Brontë, L. M. Montgomery, Thoreau…),
modern glamour (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Maugham…),
bohemian chaos (Durrells, Mansfield, Woolf…)
and fantasticated (Colette, Proust, Wilde…).

But what if your style doesn’t fall neatly into one of those mentioned – or any of them at all? Fear not: there is a way.

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Seven Literary Aunts of Orphans

Have you ever noticed how often literary orphans are equipped with aunts? These aunts generally fall into two of four categories: Good, Bad, Controlling and Crazy.
[Note: since most of these aunts have been known to the world for decades if not centuries, I make no apology for spoilers. You have been warned…]
Jane Austen starts us off with Mansfield Park (1814), containing a pair of aunts – sort of. Fanny Price has two maternal aunts, but her Aunt Bertram is laid back almost to the point of nonexistence (she operates more as a plot device than a practical person). This lack is more than made up for by the virulence of Fanny’s Aunt Norris, who most definitely falls under the heading of Controlling. And as even her virtues (thrift, for example) seem to be founded on poor motivations, I personally have no qualms in classifying her as a Bad Aunt.

Charlotte Brontë had no difficulty, in 1847, in outdoing Austen’s creation with her own aunt of Gothic awfulness: Jane Eyre‘s Aunt Reed. She treats her niece as a semi-servant, allows her spoilt children to maltreat their cousin, and eventually packs her off to a typhoid-ridden school she is lucky to survive. (“Eight years! you must be tenacious of life,” as Mr Rochester subsequently remarks.) And then, still blaming Jane for the animosity she feels, she deliberately lies to separate Jane from the only relative who cares for her. Clearly, a Bad Aunt, and Controlling too.
Three years later, Charles Dickens produced Miss Betsey Trotwood, a great-aunt whose exceeding eccentricity causes her to storm out of the house on discovering her niece has produced a male of the species. On the other hand, she takes her great-nephew David Copperfield in when he becomes an unwanted orphan (feeding him “aniseed water, anchovy sauce, and salad dressing” to comfort his tears). She also gets him off to a good start in life. A Good Aunt, all things considered, but definitely heading toward the Crazy section.

1876 (the nineteenth century was well-provided with both aunts and orphans) saw an American aunt arise, from the pen of Mark Twain: Tom Sawyer‘s Aunt Polly. A stern woman, perhaps, but her heart is in the right place. One thinks of the incident of the cat and the patent medicine (see Chapter XII). Overall, a Good Aunt, albeit somewhat Controlling.
Adventures of Tom Sawyer-pg120
Jumping into the twentieth century, we meet two of the craziest aunts of all time in Joseph Kesselring‘s Arsenic and Old Lace (1939). Mortimer Brewster’s Aunt Martha and Aunt Abby are the sweetest, kindliest, gentlest homicidal maniacs imaginable. Leading lights in the Crazy category, but possibly still candidates for the Good section, depending on how you define goodness. On the one hand, very caring and hospitable. On the other hand, serial killers. I leave it to you to decide.

1961 brought us two of the nastiest aunts, from the imagination of Roald Dahl; viz James‘ Aunts Spiker and Sponge. They take Aunt Reed’s worst ideas and run with them, perpetrating what can only be classified as child abuse. Definitely Controlling, definitely Bad, and definitely high on the list of People Who Deserve to Be Fatally Flattened by Fruit.
Old woman in grey dress by I.Makarov (1871)
Last on the list is Princess Lily’s Aunt Hortensia (ETA 2018) who illustrates the principle that meaning well is not always the same as doing well. She is undeniably Controlling (Young Ladies Do Not Argue is one of her favourite maxims) but on the other hand, she has her reasons. Over the years, I have come to feel rather sorry for Aunt Hortensia. I’m sure she’s a lovely lady deep down, but years of fear and denying herself for Duty have had their effect on her. I shall be bold, however, and claim for her a place among the Good Aunts.

Who are your favourite – or most-loathed – aunts of orphans? Share in the comments!

Seven Evil Uncles of Fiction

The Evil Uncle is a well-established and familiar form in fiction, and has been since – well, let’s take a look, shall we?

The classickest of evil uncles, to my mind, is Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius, who kills his brother (Hamlet Senior), steals his brother’s wife (in that order) and usurps the throne which was rightfully Hamlet Senior’s and is now rightfully Hamlet Junior’s. Confronted with this heaping pile of villainy, he feels a modicum of remorse (see Act III, Scene iii) – but not enough to actually try to put things right to the extent that he still can.

Claudius_at_Prayer_Hamlet_3-3_Delacroix_1844Slightly younger than Uncle Claudius is Uncle Richard, aka the Duke of Gloucester. (Only slightly younger – c. 1592 as opposed to c.1599-1602. Not 1485 – I am putting him in the fictional category as Shakespeare’s version doesn’t adhere all that closely to historical fact. Probably because he was writing under the rule of the grand-daughter of the man who killed (and replaced) Richard.) Shakespeare’s Richard orphans one niece and nephew, marries off the former to a nobody and imprisons the latter, has two other nephews murdered, and tries to marry another niece. That is a bad uncle.

Zipping on two or so centuries, to the late 1830s, we come to Kate and Nicholas Nickleby’s Uncle Ralph, a cold-hearted Scrooge of a man who uses his niece as bait for objectionable men and tries to ruin his nephew. He veers from the classic mould in not actually killing his brother (possibly because his brother doesn’t have a throne), but he doesn’t give a damn that he’s dead, either.

Nicholas Nickleby, (1875?)
C.S. Lewis furnished the world with two fine examples of the Evil Uncle genus. First (in 1951), Prince Caspian’s Uncle Miraz, who returns to the purity of the classics by killing his brother and pinching his crown – as well as planning to kill the rightful heir. Unlike Claudius, however, he does not pinch his brother’s widow, being already married to the hilariously named Prunaprismia.

Lewis’ second example is the magician who has the nephew in The Magician’s Nephew (1955) – Digory’s Uncle Andrew. A fool, perhaps, but an ambitious, meddling and arrogant fool, which to my mind qualifies him for the title of an Evil Uncle.

“Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.”
As he said this he sighed and looked so grave and noble and mysterious that for a second Digory really thought he was saying something rather fine. But then he remembered the ugly look he had seen on his Uncle’s face… and all at once he saw through Uncle Andrew’s grand words. “All it means,” he thought to himself, “is that he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants.”

Carl Spitzweg 015
So far the list of Evil Uncles seems to be dominated by the fruitful minds of the male of the species: two of Shakespeare’s, two of Lewis’, and one of Dickens’. But now, at last, we come to an Evil Uncle from the mind of a woman.

The woman in question is Ellis Peters, creator of Brother Cadfael, and also of Iveta de Massard’s Evil Uncle Sir Godfrid Picard (from The Leper of Saint Giles, 1981). He may be further from the murdering, throne-stealing Claudian mould than many of the above, but he’s still prepared to force his niece to marry a rather nasty man who is older than her father, purely for his own financial gain. And to blackmail her into pretending to like it by threatening the life of a young man she cares for. In short, a rotter.

The final Evil Uncle of the list is due to make his appearance in January 2018. Also from the mind of a woman (mine, in fact), he follows the classic mould in killing his brother to seize the throne, and trying to kill the rightful heir as well. (Why mess with a winning combination?)

man-1519667_640It is perhaps worth noting that of the first six Evil Uncles on the list (spoilers!), five are dead by the time the tale is wound up. I decided to be boldly different, and as a result, the death of Princess Lily’s Evil Uncle Phelan is announced before Chapter One is wound up. But of course, that’s not the whole story…

What fictional Evil Uncles have I missed? Feel free to add entries to the list below!