I was going to space out this post and the last (What I like in: a Lilian Jackson Braun scene), but I wanted to get them both up before I wrote about December’s reading.
This paragraph is from Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge! (1937), in which a much-awaited performance of Hamlet at the ducal mansion of Scamnum Court is disrupted by a murder. This scene is still a little before the discovery of the murder and the arrival on the scene of the Inspector John Appleby.
“Aged royalty, perhaps with royalty’s instinct for keeping clear of anything a trifle odd, had decided not to come after all. So decorations had been put away; young ladies, hearing the news when half-way to the drawing room, had scurried back to their rooms to change into more intriguing frocks; Bagot had had a busy half-hour putting away the plate which Scamnum produces only for members of a Reigning House. And now in the hall the Dowager Duchess was sitting in the front row in solitary state, on her right hand the two empty chairs that had been destined for the ‘real’ Duchess and the ‘real’ Duchess’s lady. The Dowager was formidable enough in herself and Gott received with relief Noel’s report that the old lady seemed disposed to take out most of the play in sleep. It was a quite unexpurgated Hamlet.
I liked this paragraph immensely. It felt funny and compact and yet all-embracing.
It’s such a fascinating little way of showing things happening. Innes conveys a great deal of information, but not by description or omission or neat crowd-management (although space is kept here for a crowd, in the personification of Scamnum Court as a stand-in for its staff, and in the plurality of young ladies).
Rather, most of the information is conveyed by showing reactions to a reversal.
This is 70 pages into the book, and we’ve not been told much about the preparations for aged royalty (although they have been a small part of the atmosphere of anticipation at Scamnum Court). This change itself is comparatively minor, in terms of plot. But at the same time this little hitch, which doesn’t bother anyone much (although it foreshadows larger concerns), peels back a corner of the beautiful world of Scamnun Court and shows the thoughts and concerns and scurrying business under it.
Not, “royalty were coming so XYZ was done,” but “royalty WEREN’T coming, so people did these other things instead”, which reveals at least twice as much about everyone (not least the rather presciently absent royalty). The “more intriguing frocks” implies, after all, not only less intriguing frocks, but different standards of behaviour, and the sorts of people who know what to wear for certain circumstances, and to come prepared for both, and that intrigue (of various sorts) is properly part of this world.
Additionally, by showing reactions, it keeps everyone in action. And more importantly, it’s this tiny gear change, a slight shift, an extra hum of activity, just before what’s about to be a BIG gear shift.
If you read (or have read) the book, you’ll notice the passage occurs just before a pivotal moment, but it also contains a number of aspects of the book in microcosm (and some other foreshadowing).
For example, something striking about the book is the sheer quantity of doubles. (You can already see it in this passage, with the duchesses and the two empty chairs). There’s the theatre and actors and roles, obviously, and people playing parts, and the folly that looks like a chapel but is a cowshed. There’s a set of twins. And instead of one “young lady” character, or even just the twins, there are two young English ladies and two young American ones and two awkwardly pursued youthful love affairs, a managing mother with two different approaches suitable to the differences in her daughters, more than one older romance, several rumoured vengeances, mirrors and doubled curtains, two novelists AND a publisher, several academics (two specialising in Shakespeare), another who looks a lot like the main detective and is himself a detective of sorts, three significantly active detectives, two solutions/endings, quite a few people independently resolving a mystery, several active crimes in progress, two approaches to psychology, two doctors…
Arguably not all of these are necessary (or defensible) but occasionally the effect is fascinating. Characters may play roles, but that does not mean they are the role. No one, by virtue of being the only one of their kind, is by default cast in the role of professor or writer or young lady. Which might mean that if someone is behaving stereotypically, they are choosing to do so…
Finally, as Lisbeth Campbell pointed out, “This paragraph is a really effective use of the omniscient narrator too”.
There’s some splendid omniscient moments in Hamlet, Revenge! (and moments of a sort of roving consciousness). I’d been wanting to reread this book because it opens on a high-level view of Scamnum Court from a nearby hill, and creates this impression of a Fabergé egg of a world which you don’t want ruined by murder (often country house murder mysteries create the opposite effect), and it’s all from an omniscient point of view. I’d like to go back again and look at how Innes manages point of view. One of his books starts in what appears to be either third person or omniscient, and lets you get comfortable with that before revealing it wasn’t quite the case…