Friday, 2 October 2009

Macbeth ... from 'Lady Macbeth's Tale'

There’s something you should know about her, they
tell him. But always it’s left unsaid, the final truth behind
the gossip surrounding her marriage. Some tragedy is
hinted at. Something that lingers in her southern voice.
Though she’s a Scotswoman, to her fingertips, make
no mistake about it. And the bonniest. The advancing
years merely serving to add to her renown as the most
exquisite of noblewomen. Only the gossip, that persists
like a treacherous undercurrent, hints at something ...
Yet, when he enters his cousin’s house, what takes
his breath away is how rumour and suspicion have no
place in its fastidious arrangements. His eyes, scanning
dark corners as if for sudden ambush, find only the soft
glow of wax tapers.

His cousin welcomes him to the feast. His tall,
languidly elegant kinsman, sporting the smoothly-
capped hairstyle of his Norman companions.
‘It’s been too long coz!’ The Mormaer of Moray
smiles easily, with the manner of one well-versed in
dealing with inferiors.
‘Aye,' he answers shortly. Always tongue-tied by
these sort of occasions. Still, his eyes go on taking in
everything: registering there are no women present ...
noting the effete manners of these Normans.
‘We played together as youths, remember?’ Moray
‘At our grandfather’s court!’
‘How is King Malcolm?’

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Semele - excerpt from Lady Macbeth's Tale

Semele, this woman’s name was. A woman swollen up with desire for a god who threatened his manhood was only a fiction.
‘If I ever lose control and let you have the full measure of me, it’ll tear you apart!’ Jove boasted.
‘I’m sorry,’ Jove groaned, turning his back to her on the cold ashes of their illicit bed. ‘But it’s your fault I can’t get it up.’
‘Mine?’ Semele was both anxious and incredulous.
‘You’re cold. A chill that deflates my tumescence.’
‘But I’m hot, hot only for you,’ she protested.
‘Yes, but you’re a woman.’
‘I thought that was part of the attraction,’ Semele smiled trying to relieve the tension.
‘Yes, but I told you, my sweet, you’re really not made to take in god-sized proportions. I don’t want to hurt you,’ Jove offered.
‘Don’t give me that crap!’ Semele was spunky enough to challenge his male excuses. Staring at her lover’s divine face with its eyes cut straight from the endless blue of Athenian skies, she snickered, ‘Or is it that you’re more of a centaur man, needing the thick hide of a hairy rump and ticklish little hooves to get you going?’
The god was stung. ‘I’m all man and more!’ he promised. ‘None of this having to transform myself into swans or bulls. I like it straight. Man to woman. Alpha to Omega. Prick in cunt. And strictly missionary position.’
‘But you’re a god. You can do anything. So take me anyhow and which everyway. Blow up my belly with your godseed. Take me to the top of Mount Parnassus and back again. But for Hades’ sake, do something!’
The lovers sprang apart, panting.
A thunderbolt growled above in the far off heavens. But neither heeded the warning, lying side by side in accusing silence; until at last battle was joined.
Big mistake!
Semele had spoken.
‘What’s that you just said?’ The god thundered. ‘What did you call me, bitch?’ he demanded, dashing down the flask of nectar from which he’d been quaffing.
Semele reached a plump white arm to her lover’s neck, turning his face to hers. The same wayward streak that had first led her to reject the puny advances of men to go god hunting brought her to the brink. Of the abyss.
‘Limp-dick!’ Semele jeered.

Before you could say - stap my vitals! - her lover had shown himself in his true colours. A mushroom cloud of white-hot destruction. Because where men have only guts gods have volcanic eruptions.
In the next moment Semele was molten: a puddle of hot lava blood. Bones like twisted metal. Her lovely golden hair a spume of blown glass that cooled rapidly. In a trice all that was left of the disappointed woman was the bulbous roundel of a pissing vessel.
Now and then, when the mood takes him, the god squeezes his more than manly proportions into her glass neck. But he’s an ageing god and it takes him an epoch to pass water.
Centuries roll on. By the time it gets round to the first millenium Semele is just about filled up to the brim with her hotshit god.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Lily - an extract

The rain fell skittishly like nuptial rice on the morning Jonathan Hopgate brought home a limp bride who would begin dying in the east wing at High Withens.
Beads of bright rain-water clinging to the bridegroom’s hair. Scuds of wet earth, swampy as desire, spattering his wedding clothes. And his bride of a few hours calling out from the trailing carriage ‘Jonathan have a care for yourself!’ For his damned horse had stumbled; its hooves continuing to slither on the slippery track that led up from the valley to the moors around High Withens.
A hot rain, flung from a too blue sky on to the land that was unstable and sodden, must have drowned-out her voice for he didn’t answer; riding on ahead into the the thicket of lilac trees that grew low, awry, bent by the stern winds that whipped the moorland.
Bridegroom and bride pressing on under the canopy of stunted trees that dripped sap and rain over them. Then, as the path narrowed, the progression of the carriage was impeded by the ever thickening branches of lilac that scratched the fading Hopgate crest from the lumbering vehicle. Three times Jonathan dismounted to cut away the importunate tangle of branches and already withering white lilac that smelled all the sweeter as it neared decay. Three times the bridal carriage lurched forwards, trailing Jonathan on horseback, until at last the summit was gained and a stout wind shooed the rain back down the valley to where the land churned and sickened.
At last ... destiny ...
The bridegroom’s arm sweeping a flourish as he pointed to where the house lay ahead of them.
Thirty years in exile from his inheritance.
His bride calling again from the carriage, ‘Jonathan you must help me out, if I’m to see anything.’
So he dismounted and fetched the poor, crippled thing to whom he’d pledged himself; his invalid bride cocooned in her shawls and mantles. Snatching her up into his arms, her crooked spine nestling against his chest as he showed off the estate that had been heavily mortaged by his errant grandfather before being irrevocably ruined by the Hopgate who’d spawned him; his own father having gone to damnation in the belief the Hopgate line faced a greater curse: descent into penury and oblivion.
Two upright coffins, beyond a tarn stagnant with waterlilies.
Lily looked again and saw it was only High Withens, the east and west wings louring at her.

But his wife’s shudder of awe thrilled Jonathan. The lustre of her new wealth tarnished by this visible symbol of old blood. Hopgate blood. For a brief moment he almost desired her; the coarse brown hair straggling from her bonnet, chafing his neck, its wiry strands stirring him like wickedly probing fingers. Now she saw what he was worth! The history ... the land ... and inheritance that after centuries had come to such a sorry pass of dissolution.

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Porphyria's Lover

Browning's perverse meditation on sexual desire sees Thanatos triumph over Eros. Or does it? As the febrile narrator of Porphyria's Lover strangles his lover with her own long hair, in the ultimate act of possession, he must confront the irony of having lost the object of his desire at the very moment of fulfilment. Because his sexual mastery of his lover means her erasure. And of course, pre-Freud, Browning intimates that desire itself is nothing more nor less than a taunting demon. One of those hounds of hell leading lovers unwittingly towards a deep damnation. Or as Browning puts it more succinctly elsewhere ' ... a man's reach must exceed his grasp ...' And that grasp - reaching for nothing more nor less than the ghosts of Freud's family romance - is doomed to clutch at thin air. What desire can never know, is that it seeks a spectre.

So the necrophiliac narrator of Browning's poem, having eliminated the object of desire, will be doomed to reincarnate her in yet another elusive love object. And as God remains silent in the face of murder itself within the poem, we can be sure that eros, erotic adventure, will urge the narrator on to enact yet further scenarios of sexual possession. In other words, desire never dies.

It was this ultimate irony at the heart of Browning's poem which led me to explore the notion of desire always being in excess of the object of its attentions. Of desire's deathlessness. I wanted to literalise those ghosts of family romance. So I chose the setting of a spiritualist bordello for my novel inspired by Browning's Poem.

My novel, Porphyria's Lover, sees Gabriel Feaver: actor, seducer and master of ceremonies at The Resurrectionist Club, join in an uncanny alliance with whore, Kathleen Mangan, to take on the worlds of Victorian sexuality and spirituality, in a bid to make their fortunes. But they soon find that faking love and disinterring dead passions, has haunting consequences they could never have imagined ...

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Looking For Mr. Rochester

Polidori, the author of The Vampyre, may well have been fictionalising his own crush on Lord Byron in describing his literary protagonist as having ‘formed his object into a hero of romance; and determined to observe the offspring of his fancy, rather than the person before him.’ The hero as an imaginative projection of desire is, of course, central to the history of the novel - trailing resonant poetic clouds that go right back to Milton’s sexy Satan. The ultimate malcontent, Lucifer, as has often been observed, gets the best lines and so becomes the compelling focus of Paradise Lost. And this privileging of the bad boy has gone on to become a staple of fiction.

My own first pre-pubescent literary crush was on Mr Rochester. His saturnine countenance, but even more the teasing double speak that marks his verbal seduction of the poor, plain little governess, made it as hard for me, as it was for Jane, to see the real object behind the Byronic aura of this English gentleman. For Mr. R comes complete with all the seducer’s props: big house, horse and carriage, jewels galore, and a frowning opacity that serves like an odurate wall to repel any insolent investigation into his personal life. It wasn’t until I was much older that the tinsel of Bronte’s masterful creation began to shed its gilt. A pathetic liar and bigamist? Yes. As well as being a sadist who incarcerates and dehumanises a wife who may or may not have had mental health issues! And yet ... still I couldn’t quite get over him. Searching in vain for tempestuous-browed, frock-coated gentlemen amidst the irritable throng of bowler-hatted clerks who patronised the Charing X library where I worked as a library assistant. Then the BBC went and cast the grimly delicious Timothy Dalton, he of the swooping vowels, as Mr R and I was lost all over again. Now I had a clearer picture of the object of my fancy. Jut-jawed, cleft-chinned, raven-haired and with a voice that was erotically baritone. But if there were any Byronic heroes still remaining to haunt the highways and byways of these post-lapsarian times, they weren’t, as far as I could tell, to be found on the prosaic streets of London. So I went back to the books; grew older, and sagely acknowledged that Mr Rochester and the rest of his devilish tribe were best left to skulk in the foothills of fiction.

It was around this time, the early eighties, that I first read Jean Rhys’ incomparable riposte to Charlotte Bronte. Wide Sargasso Sea spoke to me like Keats’ Belle Dame, in language strange and true. Language even a Bronte couldn’t envision. In effect, a sensuous prose poem! And Rhys’ recreation of Mr Rochester’s wife not only gloriously prises Bertha from her musty attic, but it sets out a whole new female agenda for the Byronic hero which Charlotte, unlike sister Em, could never have begun to imagine.

For Rhys’ Rochester is a creature of sexual ambivalence. Byronic in his paradoxical social unease and sense of entitlement, he is basted on the narrative spit of attraction versus repulsion. In desiring a woman whom society teaches him to despise, his very sense of selfhood is threatened. (Interestingly, Rhys omits Rochester’s name from her fiction.) And therein lies the problem. For if the romantic hero is to retain potency he must remain masterful. He must not be safely domesticated. He should above all remain a seducer rather than a husband. And yet ... Rochester needs the money. Big Houses athwart the moors have to be maintained. And status, too, is important. Mr. R wants the plaudits of that same society he professes to scorn. Like any actor, he needs an audience. So ... he fakes it. A real marriage takes place to the Creole heiress. But once the dowry is secured, Mr R resumes his old life, and with her indoors conveniently shut away, he can pretend to be single; carry on the bachelor life as before, singing his tormented arias in the grand opera of seduction. And the outcome we all know from Bronte’s fiction is, of course, the foregone conclusion to Rhys’ own novel. The hell fire that ignites Thornfield Hall would seem to signal the demise of the Byronic hero, that ultimate desire object -now hobbled; a lame Vulcan - in the marriage project that wraps up ‘women’s fiction’.

And Yet ...! Read Rhys again. The metaphorical flames of her fiction are those of an Eve realising, late in the day, that the devil was in her all along. The devil who wasn’t up to the job of keeping her with him in that pre-lapsarian bliss. Who let her sidle off with poor-old, dully reliable Adam into hard graft and bloody childbirth. From the sweet ease of the garden of Eden into the fetters of wedlock. Read Rhys again! Incendiary fiction. And like Copperfield, admit you want to be the hero/mistress of your own life. Or at least your own psycho drama; as I did, sitting down to write my slant on the Byronic hero as object of desire, in the novel, Lily: The rain fell heavily, like nuptial rice, - I wrote - the morning Jonathan Hopgate brought home a limp bride who would begin dying in the east wing at High Withens.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

What was Lady Macbeth's problem?

Lady Macbeth's rapid trajectory from dominatrix to hysteric poses the question: just what was her problem? Her hounding of her husband to commit murder appears to be predicated on skewed notions of masculinity. Thus she taunts Macbeth to prove he is a man through an act of regicide. In fact, her greatest vitriol is reserved for what she perceives as her husband's lack of manliness. But why is she so consumed with scorn when Macbeth hesitates to murder their kinsman and guest, King Duncan? Of course, Shakespeare leaves us in no doubt as to her ambition. But surely her demasculating jibes have a far murkier motivation? However, the swift pace of the play means that the 'back story' of the main characters happens offstage. And we are left to hazard breathless guesses at the sexual dynamics of their marriage.

Intrigued by what Shakespeare left out - the source of Lady Macbeth's personal demons - I followed my own quest to find the answer in writing Lady Macbeth's Tale. Right from the start, I sensed that those vituperative interrogations of her husband's masculinity could only have sprung from a primal sense of disappointment. Disappointment in men! And it is this profound rage against the first man in her life who had let her down which drives Lady M, not that much vaunted ambition. A disappointed daddy's girl! Looking to the one man who could save her from the turmoil of eleventh century power politics, in which she finds herself a pawn, she discovers only weakness. Her royal father abandons her to fate in a warring kingdom. Yet still she hasn't learned the lesson that a man can't save her. And so like many a heroine - or should I say anti-heroine? - who would follow her over the next five hundred years of so of fiction, Lady Macbeth's problem was that all along she longed for a hero - not a husband!

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Lady Macbeth's Tale

It’s the smile! The teasing smirk of a woman who knows what she wants and knows how to get it. The gilt-framed painting dominating the reception area of Tralee’s Grand Hotel is an absolute mistresspiece of feminine seduction! As a regular guest at the hotel I’ve spent many transfixed moments trying to work out the mystery of that smile; in its way as curious as the Mona Lisa’s. The painting of a woman sprawling on her fur rug seems to be depicting one of those Biblical temptresses such as Delilah. Yet with her golden pre-Raphaelite tresses and rouged cheeks, she’s what the Victorians would instantly recognise as the fallen woman incarnate. Not least because of her smile with its unashamedly wanton invitation. A leer that buttonholes the viewer as impudently as any 19th century Haymarket harlot. There she lies on the skin of a flayed animal (no prizes for guessing what that represents) offering herself to the presumably male gaze. A good-time bad girl. Certainly no Victorian angel of the hearth. And yet ... still I couldn’t get that smile out of my head. Because it’s not just naughtily seductive ... there’s something else. Something almost uncanny. A smile of delighted malevolence! Which got me thinking about all those mythical women who get their rocks off on ruining the male of the species: Medea, Medusa and yes, those Biblical babes, Salome and Delilah. But the queen of them all, as far as I’m concerned, is Lady Macbeth herself. The great shrew of literature who nags her husband into murder. Just exactly what it is - that hold Lady Macbeth has over her husband - has been another puzzle I’ve worried at like a dog with a bone over many years of teaching the play. So there I was in the Grand Hotel, looking at one wicked woman and being reminded of another.
But it was in the grounds of yet another Kerry Hotel that my inchoate thoughts coalesced into some solid ideas for a new novel. As I stood on the ruins of the medieval fort at the edge of the achingly beautiful Lough Lein - the site of Killarney’s inimitable Lake Hotel - I suddenly saw it all: Lady Macbeth’s sexual hold over her husband resulted from a deeply rooted sense of disappointment. Disappointment in men!
And so my journey into the past began. A journey which would take me back into my own Irish roots in ways I couldn’t have possibly imagined.

I was born in West London but have been regularly making trips to Tralee, Eire, where my mother’s people are from, since childhood. And it’s the breathtaking Kerry scenery itself which has turned out to be the final ingredient in the cauldron of ideas and emotions which went into writing my latest novel, Lady Macbeth’s Tale. For once I started researching the eleventh century history behind Shakespeare’s mythic play, I discovered that the histories of the peoples of the British Isles were more deeply intertwined than I had imagined. Travelling to and fro between Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland was just as much a habit back in the Dark Ages as it is now. Even if rape and pillage have been replaced by business and tourism.
But it wasn’t until I began researching the historical Macbeth that I discovered something closer to home. For the real Macbeth was a member of the royal house of Scotland which had its roots in Ireland. The Dal Riada, Kings of Scotland, hailed from Northern Ireland. Riada - anglicised to Reidy. The Reidy tribe! Recent researches into my own family had turned up a Reidy great grandmother. So was it possible Macbeth was my own - fifty million times removed - cousin? An exhilarating thought. But in fiction more than history, anything is possible.
So although I made my Lady Macbeth half Cornish, I had her abducted to Ireland by the Thane of Cawdor and was able to use all those haunting Irish landscapes to colour the novel. Thus, the lushly wooded region of Killarney, the tranquil Loch Lein, Caragh Loch and the misty Slieve Mish mountains figure as part of Lady Macbeth’s magical journey into her own destiny. A fictional destiny which functions as a dark prologue to the events in Shakespeare's play. So while I must ultimately acknowledge the Bard himself for inspiring this novel, I have to record my debt of gratitude to the Management of The Grand Hotel, Tralee, for allowing me to reproduce their stunning painting for the cover of Lady Macbeth's Tale.