I haven’t had much luck in my reading of late, but after 50 pages of Drood by Dan Simmons I’m cautiously optimistic. Perhaps it’s partly due to my low expectations which were easy to exceed. For a long time, I passed Simmons’s novel by on my book-buying sprees, as the reviews had given me to understand that it 1) had horror-story elements (and I don’t like horror stories) 2) was sneering about Dickens. In the end, though, immersing myself in yet another Dickens-themed tale proved too tempting, and besides the novel is acclaimed and can be seen as an Ambitious Book Project. After a lot of trying out of potentially soufflé-light reads which failed to give the proper comfort-blanket feel, maybe an ABP is exactly what I need.
I wasn’t wrong in my prejudices – Drood does have horror-story elements (though I’ve been able to stomach them so far) and it is sneering about Dickens. The sneeriness is largely a consequence of its narrator, though, who – supposedly – is Wilkie Collins, Dickens’s friend and protegé. Collins in this version is deeply envious of his older and more successful friend, and this colours everything he says about Dickens as a man and as a writer.
I find I can bear attacks on Charles Dickens’s character surprisingly well. Few people would contest that he behaved like a pig towards his long-suffering wife Catherine, for instance (though there are actually those who do). I have no problems in imagining Dickens as a difficult man; I admire him as a writer, not as a wonderful specimen of human kindness and philanthropy. Consequently, criticism of his writing is much harder to take, but in this context we needn’t credit the clearly biased narrator’s musings on the subject.
If anyone comes out of this set-up looking less good than he should it’s Wilkie Collins, and since I really like his books I think it’s a bit of a pity that he has to play the role of “Salieriesque rival” – as the blurb will have it – in Drood. I’d have preferred a fictional, envious sidekick to Dickens. Maybe the real Wilkie Collins’s position as young friend, colleague and reluctantly admitted almost-family member (Collins’s brother married Dickens’s daughter, a match Dickens didn’t care for), as well as an opium addict, is what makes him ideally placed to be the narrator of this book. I’ll take the liberty of seeing Collins in Drood as fictional in substance, however, as I would like to think that the real Wilkie was a great deal less small-minded than he’s described as here.
One thing that makes it easier to imagine Drood Wilkie Collins and the real Wilkie Collins as separate people is that the narrative style in Drood doesn’t resemble Collins’s style at all. Again, this raises the question of why Collins is the narrator when he doesn’t even sound like Collins: on the other hand, we are spared cumbersome pastiche, which makes the novel a far more interesting read. I like Wilkie Collins’s style when he is the one using it, but I can imagine that it would not fare well in the hands of another author, especially as even the original can become a bit knotty at times when Collins insists on explaining every detail of his plot in order to make sure that there are no holes in it.
Another author whom you pastiche at your peril is Jane Austen. I’ve lost count of the times I wished that an Austen-themed novel – sequel, prequel, retelling, you name it – was not written in a supposedly Austenesque style. Austen managed to be pithy and amusing in spite of the regency feel of her prose. Modern authors, however, seem to use regency expressions in order to make the prose more genteel and circumspect than it need have been. This, in my view, is to misunderstand what makes Austen such a good writer – and it often makes for a boring read, too.
I’ve had mixed experiences with Stephanie Barron’s series of crime mysteries where Jane Austen is the narrator and sleuth. I remember enjoying Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor as a cosy manor-house mystery, and I liked the salaciously gossipy Jane and the Barque of Frailty (what it blithely presents as a known fact about Castlereagh even Wikipedia finds hard to credit). On the other hand, I can’t remember anything about Jane and the Wandering Eye except that I found it surprisingly heavy going, and recently I felt the same about Jane and the Man of the Cloth. In the latter case, I was also irritated by Jane’s crush on mercurial man of mystery Geoffrey Sidmouth, whom I found eminently resistible and notably underwritten, as if the mere idea of a moody squire with his own code of honour etc. should be enough to set hearts a-flutter. The books are written as pastiches on Austen’s style – it’s supposed to be extracts from her diary – and this simply weighs the narrative down, as do the faux-scholarly footnotes. Even if the real Jane Austen’s family does play a part, I was still left wondering why the heroine had to be Austen. There’s not much about her writing in the “diary extracts” (admittedly, what there is I enjoyed). The characters and plot of the book don’t connect to Austen’s novels in any interesting way. Surely, any plucky regency lass would have done just as well as protagonist, and would have been more likely to be susceptible to crushes than the level-headed Austen.
I’ll give this series a couple of more chances – after all, I’ve already purchased a few of the books in it. Man of the Cloth and Wandering Eye are early books, and maybe the mysteries pick up pace as the series moves along. But on the whole, I wonder if famous authors may have one thing in common with villains – they’re better off being depicted in novels at one remove, by someone close to them rather than supposedly in their own words.