One of my favorite holiday activities is going to the movies. I love movies in any case, and it’s particularly fun to go with friends and family in the midst of holiday celebrations, especially with all the movies that open at the end of the year as part of the lead up to the various awards. In and around shopping, wrapping, card writing, and entertaining, I managed to go to quite a few movies in the past few weeks. My favorites were Atonement and Sweeney Todd, which were both quite haunting and wonderful. I blogged about them last week on History Hoydens.
As I mentioned in that blog, watching the opening scene of Sweeney Todd, I was struck by the similarity to the opening scene of Beneath a Silent Moon. For a fleeting moment, I could almost have been watching a movie of my own book (well, we can all dream :-). Sweeney Todd opens with Sweeney returning to London by ship. His views on London are in sharp contrast to those of the man who has rescued him, the idealistic young sailor Anthony. In Sweeney’s words:
There’s a whole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren’t worth what a pin can spit
and it goes by the name of London.
Beneath a Silent Moon opens with a mysterious character (a very different character from Sweeney Todd), returning to London by ship after a long absence. His thoughts on arriving (the opening paragraph of the book) are:
The night air was like a lover’s touch. Cloaked in mystery, beckoning with promise, sweet at times but quickly cloying. And underneath, rotten to the core.
He had forgotten was a foul whore the London night was.
In the movie version of Sweeney Todd (which did a great a job of taking advantage of what can be done on film without “opening up” the story too much), the scene of the Thames at night and the dockside looked remarkably like my vision of the scene in Beneath a Silent Moon (and also like the cover for the book’s May trade reissue).
I first saw Sweeney Todd years before I began work on Beneath a Silent Moon. I don’t remember consciously thinking about the musical at all as I wrote the book. But I suspect, somewhere in my subconscious, the song “No Place in London” influenced the opening scene in the book.
I’m very aware of some of the literary influences on my work. I’ve blogged about the Scarlet Pimpernel books, the Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane books, Dorothy Dunnett, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and others. But sometimes, as with that moment in Sweeney Todd, I’m only realize after the fact that I must have been influenced by something. That also happened with a couple of plays which, like The Scarlet Pimpernel and An Ideal Husband (both of which I’ve consciously studied as models) are the portraits of a marriage, though the parallel to the Charles & Mélanie books is much less obvious. In 2002, I saw a fabulous production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’ve always loved the play. I first saw it when I was in high school and a local theater group did a production in which my theater teacher played Martha. When I saw the OSF production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Daughter of the Game (the original version of Secrets of a Lady) had just been published. A Regency-era suspense novel might seem to have little in common with a contemporary drama, but watching the play I realized that both it and my book begin with a married couple coming home from a party and discussing the events of the evening over a night cap and that in both cases as the story unfolds the illusions and lies the couple live by are stripped away. What really struck me was this exchange in the last scene of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:
George: It will be better.
Martha: I don’t know.
George: It will be, maybe.
Martha: I’m not sure.
Martha: Just us?
It reminded me of this exchange from the last scene in Daughter of the Game/Secrets of a Lady:
She stared at the rumpled sofa cushions, and then at the painting of her and the children on the overmantel. “It’s never going to be the same.”
“No.” He watched her. The sunlight shot through the stiff lace of her high-standing collar and dappled her collarbone. A loose ringlet fell against her cheek. A scrape showed on the back of her left hand, a relic of one of their brushes with danger. In seven years, there was not a moment when he had felt he knew her so completely.
“It might be better,” he said.
She looked at him, her eyes wife and bruised and tinged with desperate–hope, relief, fear perhaps. “Oh, darling. I don’t even know where to begin.”
Another exchange struck me, in another play that focuses on a marriage, when I saw Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the American Conservatory Theater. The play ends (at least two of the three versions do) with Brick and Maggie in bed together and this exchange:
Maggie: I do love you, Brick, I do.
Brick: Wouldn’t it be funny if that were true?
The next to last chapter of Daughter of the Game/Secrets of a Lady ends with Charles and Mélanie in bed together, talking through the revelations that have shaken their marriage. They are speculating about the original couple who possessed the Carevalo Ring, but of course they’re really talking about themselves:
Mélanie reached up and laced her fingers through his own. “Perhaps she told him the truth eventually.”
“Perhaps he believed her.” Charles brought her hand to his lips and kissed her palm. “Perhaps, just possibly, they ended up being happy anyway.”
Mélanie curled her fingers against his face. “It may not be the truth,” she said, “but it’s a lovely story.”
The Mélanie/Cbarles exchange is much more hopeful than the deeply ironic one between Maggie and Brick. Or so I always thought. When I noticed the parallel, I realized that both scenes could be played in a tantalizing number of ways.
I first saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I was quite young, a television production with Laurence Olivier as Big Daddy and Natalie Wood as Maggie. My parents watched it, and I watched it with them, at first thinking I wouldn’t like it, then becoming totally fascinated, though I didn’t entirely understand what was going on. I read the play it later when I was studying acting and also saw an excellent production of it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when I was a teenager. I’ve always been fascinated by stories that examine marriages. It’s not surprising that both Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were somewhere in my mind (along with The Scarlet Pimpernel, An Ideal Husband, Busman’s Honeymoon, and many other influences) when I set out to write about a married couple and the deceptions and illusions between them. I mentioned both a few months ago, when I blogged about Influences on Secrets of a Lady.
Writers, have you ever noticed influences on your own work after the fact? Readers, have you ever been caught by unexpected resonances between books/plays/movies? Do you speculate on what books/plays/movies influenced a particular author?
In keeping with today’s blog, this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence (which moves back to January 1814) is a letter from Charles to Mélanie.
New update, 18 January: my new microsite on the HarperCollins website just launched. These microsites are really fun–I had a great time putting it together. It includes some fun features like a Charles & Mélanie timeline, and a photo album with some pictures from Beneath a Silent Moon that aren’t on this site yet.