Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


I recently returned to reading Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, which I had started last summer and then put aside (I sometimes hit moments when I’m writing when I just can’t read anything). I was drawn back immediately by the richness of the writing and the sharp emotional details. I was also struck by comparing and contrasting the book with the recent film, which I also liked. The major events are the same, but the emotional arc is quite different (though Kitty Fane does grow and change in both). It’s rather as though someone were to film Secrets of a Lady with the same basic plot but have the story end with Charles and Mel realizing they’d never really known or loved each other but staying together for practicality.

The other the thing The Painted Veil got me to thinking about is one of my favorite literary tropes–marriage in trouble plots. They’ve always fascinated me, long before I started writing about Charles and Mélanie. That’s why, when I cite influences and inspirations for the Charles & Mélanie series, in addition to the more obvious ones like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Scaramouche, Dorothy Dunnett, and Dorothy Sayers, I mention Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, and Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson books.

Reading The Painted Veil, I was pondering the fascination of this plotline. The intimacy of marriage ups the stakes in the conflict between two people. Percy’s devastation at Marguerite’s seeming lack of trustworthiness is all the great because she has just become his wife. Betrayal, I think, is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. How much worse is it when that betrayal comes from a spouse? Years of living together also gives characters a knowledge of each other that recent lovers wouldn’t have. In The Real Thing, the hero has a wonderful speech about knowing one’s spouse, in a way that goes far beyond carnal. That knowledge can be used for good or will. George and Martha know just how to push each other’s buttons. So, for that matter, do Maggie and Brick.

Particularly in an historical setting, marriage makes it difficult for two people to walk away from each other, no matter how poisoned their relationship has grown. There’s a fascinating tension in two people pretending to be a couple to the outside world, while being estranged when they’re alone. Think of Percy and Marguerite keeping up appearances to the beau monde yet unable to communicate in private, Maggie and Brick maintaining the charade of their marriage (or at least Maggie trying to) in front of his family. Kitty and Walter Fane sharing a bungalow in a cholera-infested town, seen by most as a devoted couple who’ve risked infection so as not to be separated.

Unlike most of the other couples mentioned in this post, Kitty and Walter actually know each other very little (hence much of the tragedy). But even they share a history. With any married couple, there’s a past to explore–how they came to be married and why, what they both expected, how that expectation compares to the current reality. And history is something I love to explore as a writer, whether it’s historical events or the personal history shared by two people.

Do you like marriage in trouble stories? Why or why not? Any favorite examples to suggest? What do you think makes them work?

The Fraser Correspondence takes a new turn this week. To go along with some research I’m doing for a possible project, I’ve gone back to 1814, when Charles and Mel have just arrived at the glittering Congress of Vienna. This week’s letter is from Charles to David.

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about “Literary Deal-Breakers”–plot elements or types of characters or settings that make one not try a book, not matter how well-recommended, or put a book down unfinished. On a more positive note, I though I’d talk about “Literary Deal-Makers”–types of stories or characters or settings that will cause one to actively seek out a book.

I know there are certain story elements that appeal to me across genres. I’ve always loved stories about married couples whether in mysteries, romances, classics, historical fiction, or plays. The Scarlet Pimpernel, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Spiral Path, The Real Thing, Laurie King’s Mary Russell series, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Busman’s Honeymoon, Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson books, An Ideal Husband. Modern setting or historical, happy ending, tragic ending, or something in between. If I hear a book or play or movie described as an examination of a marriage, I’m likely to seek it out.

I also like stories about ex-spouses or lovers reuniting. The Philadelphia Story. Persuasion. Much Ado About Nothing. Bath Tange. Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And I’ve always had a weakness for spy stories. Whether it’s the moral ambiguity of John Le Carré or Len Deighton, an espionage-laced historical romance like Mary Jo Putney’s Petals on the Wind, a play filled with double-crosses like Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, or a television series like Spooks/MI-5, if I hear “spies” or “espionage,” my attention is caught.

It’s not surprising that these interests mesh in the Charles & Mélanie books. They also continue to influence the type of books (and movies, plays, and tv shows) I seek out.

What about you? What type of plot premise or character or setting makes you seek out a book? Do your “deal-makers” work across genres and eras?

Be sure to check out the Fraser Correspondence. I’ve just posted a letter from Simon Tanner to his actress friend Cecily Summers, which catches up on what happens with Manon after Cecily helps her escape the Tavistock Theatre early in Beneath a Silent Moon.

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.

(more…)