Bad reviews are always hurtful – no one wants to think that their book is no good. That’s especially so when you’re accused of treating your readers with disrespect and all the more so when those readers are children. Normally, I make a point of not replying – readers can make up their own minds – but Ms Stone’s one in this issue of BFK is different because it’s an editorial.
Stone seems to be making a number of different criticisms. One, that it’s bad a book. I’ve always made it a point not to defend my work on the grounds of how good it is – that would be asking for it. I’ve written some poor books in my time – Robbers on the Road isn’t my best; neither is it my worst. All I’ll say here is that other reviewers have held other opinions of it. (The Times 11/09/02.) Her original argument in the piece was that some publishers will refuse to edit big names for fear of causing offence, thus allowing rubbish on the market just because the name will sell. Obviously, the worse my book, the more valid her argument, and if she’d stuck simply to saying that the book was poor, I would have remained silent. It’s the accusation of sadomasochism and dumping on children that I feel need answering.
For those who haven’t read the book the offending scenes involve a boy, Francis, who has lost his parents and has to live with his uncle. Francis is an early middle class snob, with pretensions to aristocracy inherited from his father – pretentions which his uncle doesn’t share. Francis is forced to attend the local grammer school, which he considers much beneath him and makes himself something of a hero among the other boys by repeatedly provoking the schoolmaster, Japes, to beat him. There are two points I’d like to make, both of which concern the mis-application of psychological theory. If I can allow myself a little bitch, I’d like to point out that Rosemary is currently studying for her MSc in psychology, suggest that she isn’t the first over-zealous student to misapply her discipline and wonder idly if she hasn’t recently been going over a module about the effects of violence on children ? Well, maybe. There are problems about applying modern theory of this sort to the past. History has been going on a long time; it don’t always work.
When I was researching for Robbers, one of the first things that struck me was the violent treatment of children. They were beaten at home and at school almost as a matter of course. Did this treatment leave them severely damaged? I’d love to see a university that did a course in the historical application of psychology, but I think it would be a difficult venture. Today, of course, abuse of children is the great crime, the bogeyman of the age, and I’d be first in line trying to get Japes not only sacked but hopefully prosecuted for his actions. But times change, and psychology with them. It may be that the entire Elizabethan population consisted of the abused and the abusers – but they certainly wouldn’t have viewed it like that.
Actually, the question, How did Tudor children feel about their treatment is an interesting one, but, surprisingly, considering the amount of source material we have from the period, it’s one we shall never know the answer to. The great subjective source of the period is of course Shakespeare. Sitting here, I can’t think of a single decent portrait of a child in the entire body of his work. Please don’t say Juliet – I know she was only fourteen, but child she ain’t. He is typical of his time. Fictionally, it isn’t a question of re-creation, but remodelling. I was reminded not of the severely damaged victims who star in current TV dramas, but partly of the scarrification and other ordeals other societies subject young people too; and in particular, the stories I heard from my brother and other boys of my own generation who went to schools that used the cane enthusiastically. Those boys did compare stripes, and it was often a matter of bravery and face, rather than shame and guilt. Not always – but often enough. An argument for the return of corporal punishment? No. An interesting angle on how times were different then? I should say so.
Reading over what I’ve written, it sounds as though I spent a good deal of time trying to re-create some sort of psychological portrait of the children in my story. As Rosemary pointed out, that is certainly not the case in this book, and with that judgement that she would have been better leaving her text book firmly shut. For this purpose, you could say there are two types of character in fiction. One extreme would be a character out of, say, Thomas Hardy or DH Lawence; at the other would be Tom and Jerry, or Itchy and Scratchy. You could have some fun (but only some, because there’s always much more to fictional characterisation than human psychology) analyse Bathshebe Evergreen or Giles Winterbourne from a psychological viewpoint, but any discussion on Tom as a cannibalistic psychopath has obvious shortcomings.
Shakespeare, since we’re dealing with the Tudors, dealt with both types, with say, Hamlet at one end and Sir Toby Belch at the other. Falstaff is a fine example of a well drawn cartoon character, mainly comic, but with a good dose of pathos and bathos and cruelty built in. And how unfairly Henry treats him in the end, when, having been provided with years of fun, he disingenuously dumps his cartoom companion for the terrible crime of not being real enough.
And Will and Francis, of course, are not real either. I belong to the camp who heaved a sigh of regret when Dennis’ dad hung up his slipper. Goodbye forever to golden lines, like, “I’ll supply the X’s, you supply the oh’s.” (with an X on Dennis’s bum, after an episode involving noughts and crosses.) Belying the reality of such cruel treatment? I don’t think so. I don’t pretend that Will and Francis, or Mr Japes, are quite in the Dennis the Menace category, but you take my point. The characters are more than merely comic, I hope, but the psychology is that of entertainment and interest between page and reader, not within the characters. It may or may not be a valid point of criticism that I contented myself here with drawing comparisons with, rather than entering into, the world of the Tudors, but it really is just plain silly to try and analyse them as if there were real. It’s a book, Rosemary. There’s no blood, no pain, no grief, because there’s no child.
There’s a simple test to apply with all such accusations, to try and determine if it is the reviewer or children who are likely to be disturbed. Will this book actually disturb children in any damaging way? Almost invariably, someone has forgotten to take the children into account. I had another look at the offending passages, and as usual, it’s safe to say that except in the must particular of cases the answer is undoubtedly no. Children, unlike Ms Stone, have an excellent eye for what is real and what is not.