Sarah Dunant’s Books at Bedtime was selected as one of the best of this week’s BBC Radio programmes by Simon Parkes. To listen to a reading from Blood and Beauty and an extract from Sarah’s programme on a cultural history of syphilis click here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b02118d0 (starts at 15:25).
As you might have noticed, there is literary spat on going at the moment about whether unlikable women characters in fiction are judged differently from men. It all started with the American writer, Claire Messud, attacking an interviewer who suggested the central figure in her novel The Woman Upstairs was the kind of person you wouldn’t want for a friend, and therefore makes for grim company. Messud sank her teeth into the journalist’s jugular and shook her about a bit to make the point that men don’t get asked this kind of question and that fiction is full of unlikeable men who we follow avidly.
While there is a lot to say about this, it might help to define our terms a bit. What exactly do we mean by ‘unlikeable’? And does the word mean the same thing for men or women?
Certainly, unpleasant, amoral, dark, or outrageously cocky men in literature are common and often irresistible. As Claire Messud herself points out, the likes of Roth, Rushdie and Amis used to write them all the time. Indeed Roth still does, but it seems to be his life journey to penetrate the dark self-obsessed centre of masculinity and as a woman reader, I’m happy to be educated on the project, not least because he is fantastic writer. (It makes no sense in this debate for us not to give credit where credit is due.)
The follow up then might be – are men readers as interested and enthralled by the idea of reading about the dark centre of being female? To answer that, all you have to do is ask an even bigger, balder question: are men that interested in reading much serious fiction at all, regardless of who is writing it or what it is about? Because if they aren’t (and all the evidence shows that it is women who make up the great majority of the reading public) then this problem of unlikeable females and whether or not we enjoy reading about them is largely down to women to decide.
So let’s go a little deeper into unlikeability.
In terms of successful fiction it’s true that often the nastier the character the more compelling and dynamic they are likely to be. No one could call Hannibal Lecter likeable, but oh my, his darkness is provocative, compulsive and, in plot terms, extremely dynamic. Indeed it is the action of the book. So can we have a female Hannibal? Well, we can get close. The deranged fan, Annie in Stephen King’s Misery is violent and psychotic. It is her psychosis with its grotesque vulnerabilities that runs the thriller narrative. Those are both male writers. So what about women writing bad women? Margaret Atwood is a clear star here. The Robber Bride (twenty years old now) has a female character who is devious, driven and treacherous. But all those attributes help fuel the action of the book. Or there is Fay Weldon’s classic Life and Loves of a She Devil - the study of a woman’s fury activating a tale of gothic revenge. You wouldn’t want either of those women in your immediate address book, but my God you want to keep turning the page.
What they all have in common in their ‘unlikeability’ is power. And this is surely the secret. Think of all the women in history who live on in popular imagination precisely because they have not been ‘likeable’: Catherine the Great, Elizabeth 1st, more recently the rewriting of Ann Boleyn. I would add to that Lucrezia Borgia, though having just spent some years in her company there is a big caveat here – more on that later. The reason they are all remembered at all, is that they were operating in a male arena, which meant that to survive they had to behave somewhat like men: ambitious, driven, potent. Not exactly nice attributes, but you don’t ignore them.
When it comes to Lucrezia Borgia the exact opposite is actually the truth. Say her name out loud and among the adjectives you get back are licentious, incestuous, poisonous, murderer. How unlikable is that? (I suspect the key here is ‘licentious and incestuous’ since sex always works well for giving women prominence in history). Yet if you dig deeper you find it is all rubbish. A fabrication. A case of a lot of mud slinging through the 15th century equivalent of tabloid journalism and the truth not getting a look in.
So when I wrote Blood & Beauty my challenge was to get the history right – which meant making her more likeable – without rendering her boring compared to her more genuinely villainous family. The job was made easier by the fact that whole book is driven by action, politics, survival, revenge and that as she gradually understands that she is being used as a pawn in the game and starts to rebel against it, so, in the end, she does gain some power over her future. Though it also follows that she isn’t quite as sweet by the time history has roughed her up a bit.
So if the secret is that the more power you have, the more you can afford to be unlikable, then maybe Clare Messud’s dilemma is that her lead character does not have any – or at least not in the outside world. As she herself says ‘We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. In our lives of quiet desperation … not a soul registers that we are furious.’
While for some reviewers all that internalised fury has made for a wonderful character study, others seem to yearn for something more active, the pleasure of seeing what might happen when that fury (likable or not) is unleashed onto the world at large. To make up your own mind you’ll have to read the book yourself.
As to women and power, I offer this final thought. The reason I am writing this at all is because I was asked to debate this issue this morning on the BBC’s Today programme: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-22685719. (For those outside Britain, Today is our flagship radio news show with a huge listenership.) I sat for an hour waiting to go on and in all that time I never heard a single female voice on air. The presenters, the newsreaders, the commentators, the politician, the experts were all male: men talking about IMPORTANT matters with AUTHORITY, even a sense of their own POWER. And you know what? I genuinely don’t think anyone had noticed till we got into the discussion about women writers and I decided to mention it.
So – put that world into fiction through the eyes of a heroine and imagine the structure of a dynamic novel. I can’t help thinking she might have to be a tad angry and unlikeable to get things changed.
Blood & Beauty has been reviewed widely across the national media, and the verdict is unanimous:
‘A wonderful study of one legendary family’s much-vaunted blood ties and vaulting ambition from a master of historical fiction… an insightful, fresh take on the whole Borgia clan… A comparison to Wolf Hall is not out of place here’ The Times, Viv Groskop
‘The corridors of power are hotbeds of political intrigue, and few more so than those of the Vatican when the Borgias held sway… Sarah Dunant’s gripping novel… is a must read for anyone interested in the period, and for those who simply enjoy intelligent historical fiction.’ Daily Mail, Kathy Stevenson
‘It is in her asides that Dunant triumphs, like all good novelists: in deft, shrewd, precise use of killer detail.’ Guardian, Christobel Kent
‘While Dunant has always been a masterful storyteller, here she excels’ Psychologies, Emma Herdman
‘This is Dunant’s fourth Renaissance novel and she is in her element… She brings 15th century Italian cities vividly alive – the lawlessness and violence, the diseased and damaged bodies, the debauchery and corpses… an intelligent and passionate book’ Sunday Times, Lucy Atkins
‘The infamous Borgia family is the subject of Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant. Her epic breathes life into Renaissance Italy, challenging what we think we know about this corrupt dynasty’ Good Housekeeping
‘Blood and Beauty establishes her as a top-ranking novelist of the Italian renaissance. Its power lies in its seamless combination of historical expertise with a natural gift for storytelling… Dunant has promised us a sequel. I can’t wait.’ The Tablet, Susan Dowell
Outdoor literary festivals are fragile concepts at the best of time given the British climate but legend has it that Cornwall in May can be beautiful. Certainly the little town of Fowey, perched on the edge of the sea and beloved home of Daphne du Maurier, one of last century’s most accomplished and popular writers, must be stunning when the sun shines. One can imagine people strolling across the lawns towards the festival tent, stopping to look down on the great river mouth, imagining tea on the hotel deck after an invigorating encounter with a little literature.
Inside the festival tent where I am the “little literature” there is so much wind that the screen set up to show my images of renaissance paintings is behaving like a galley under full sail. I am delivering the first ever Daphne du Maurier lecture for a festival that used to bear her name but it is now called Fowey Festival of Words and Music. While the ways of festival committees and tourist boards are a marvel to us mere writers, it is possible that someone higher up the chain of command has taken exception to the name change, and is now tossing thunderbolts down to make the point. The audience huddle together for warmth at the front of a 600 seater venue. It is early afternoon on a Monday and while Bruce Springstein or Dan Brown might pull a full house I doubt anyone else could. Even Ken Livingstone over the weekend only reached half way to the back. Still of course we all make the best of it: in fact that flapping screen rather suits the image of Botticelli rising Venus who appears to be dancing in front of our eyes, though it works less well with Bellini’s great portrait of the Doge of Venice whose magnified lips vibrate in a kind of sneer.
I go to bed that night almost buoyant at the prospect of the next days session when I talk about Blood and Beauty, the novel’s first outing outside London since it hit the bookstalls ten days ago. I am woken long before dawn by the sound of water lashing against the windows of my room. By morning the sky is so low and the rain so dense that you can’t make out the sea. Torrential is the only word, though horizontal would better to describe the way it is moving. Daphne would have loved it. I can almost see her striding out across the fields with her dogs at her heel, another macabre twist in a story of deceit and betrayal arranging itself in her mind as she walks. I would join her, only of course I packed for spring and my cute canvas shoes are in danger of giving me trench feet.
At the back of the great tent I cower in a little green room made of furled sheets next to small fan heater. It is never good form to ask the festival organiser how many tickets have been sold because that way lies humiliation, but when I mutter something about loosing audiences to flooding his smile is not reassuring. The wonderful academic who is interviewing me – Helen Taylor is her name and an OBE would be not enough – takes my mind of the weather by running through her questions, which will keep me pirouetting on my literary toes.
As we fumble our way through expanses of black curtains I hear someone laugh. Whoever is out there, he/she has a sense of humour. Perhaps I could invite them back to my hotel room and we could do the session there. Then I walk out on the stage. And guess what? There are people there. I have no idea how many, but many more than I can count and while some of look as if they are wearing their duvets (how I envy them) they are smiling and give us a hearty round of applause. We spend the first five minutes congratulating ourselves on how we all got there at all (thank God for the Dunkirk spirit) and then we get going.
What can I say? I love every minute of it. The adrenaline flows and when the questions from the audience come, they are smart and engaged. As are all the people who come up later to the signing table. I sit with an early glass of wine (and why not?) listening to their stories with a huge grin on my face: the couple where the husband read Sacred Hearts at loud to his wife every night, or the trainee English teacher who wrote her A level dissertation on “The Birth of Venus.” Of course I am flattered. Who would not be? But it’s more than that. Suddenly ten hours on trains, soaking feet and the imminent need to build an ark, don’t matter any more. There is a Jackson Brown track of which I am particularly fond. It is about being on the road and it contains the memorable line.
“The only time that seems too short is the time that we get to play.”
It is exactly how I feel. I must go back to my hotel room and take some drugs (ibuprofen comes to mind) and wreck the furniture. If I don’t fall asleep first.