Don’t hover in the doorway like that.
Come in or piss off – I don’t care either way.
Who in hell are you, anyway? Prophet of doom, by the look. First man I’ve sighted in two months, and what do they send me? I’m not entirely sure it was worth the wait. Still, I like to see a new face, and you’re handsome enough. For a priest. What a waste. But then, we could say the same of me.
Did the Abbess send you? That’d be just like her. Can’t they let me rest? Requiescat in pace, as it were.
I suppose they’ve told you to take my Confession, have they?
I must be dying. I thought as much.
Sit down, then. Sit down. Let’s get this over with. I’m afraid I can’t offer you a glass of cognac, but then you look more like a mother’s milk man to me.
Did they warn you about me, Father? Have you heard all the gossip – in the cloisters, in the kitchens, all over the countryside? I know what they’re saying. I know what you’re thinking, too. The oldest story of all – scarlet woman, turns her face from sin at the end of her days, takes the veil – finds humility and salvation.
I’m sorry to disappoint you but I’m not that way inclined. I’m not really a nun. I’m only here for my health – fat lot of good that it’s done me. So it won’t be a nun’s confession that you hear. If I can get up out of this damned – sorry, Father – this bed, I’ll go to Mass, like everyone, but for the beauty of it, the wonder – for that moment, when they hold the chalice aloft, of connection with Heaven. For the drama of it, you might say.
Don’t scoff. That’s the point of it, isn’t it? Otherwise nobody would bother, surely, week in and week out. We all need a little music in our lives, a touch of tragédie – mysteries and soaring voices and a shot of sunlight through blue glass. It’s a spectacle, more like the old days at Versailles than you’d care to admit, Father – just like the moment the orchestra begins to tune up and the house falls silent, ready to believe anything that happens on that stage. There’s magic in it – in the ritual and the riches – that I love, though it has nothing, unfortunately, to do with faith.
That’s why I like it here. It’s comforting. My city friends would laugh their hats off if they heard me say that – if I could laugh, myself, without coughing up my entrails, I would. Yet here in this white cell I have found comfort. A chair. A bed. The bells calling everyone to Vespers. The soft sounds of sweeping. It’s not comfortable, but it is comforting. There’s a difference – do you see?
The heart – perhaps the soul, I’m not sure – is at rest. The body, faithless thing, aches and rumbles and twists in pain in the cold hours of the morning. But the essence of me is soothed. Here.
Or at least it was until you turned up.
That’s the opening of the draft novel, Tragédie, which forms the creative component of my PhD project.
It’s written largely in the voice of Julie de Maupin, born in 1673, who became one of Europe’s greatest swordswomen and also a cross-dressing, nun-kidnapping, duelling, arsonist opera star.
I should say, rather, that it’s in the version of her voice that I hear clearly in my head and try to get down on paper. It is a transparently modern voice. So it’s not actually hers at all – there are only a few passages that have come down to us in words that may be truly her own.
My project is about that voice – the way I write it, the way others have written it, and the ways in which it has been read over the centuries. It’s also about other voices, historical voices, imagined voices, and the many varied ways in which historical narrative voices come to us through fiction.
I’m not sure yet how to integrate the critical and creative components of the project, or even to what extent I should. I do know, though, that I can only write down the voice as I hear it. I’m saying “hear” rather than “conceive” or “imagine” because that’s how it feels. I experiment, edit and sift, of course, and sometimes she simply talks crap. But if I try too hard to construct it, to editorialise, to introduce concepts from my reading, it won’t sound right, it won’t ring true – to me or anyone else. If I make it different to the words Julie whispers in my ear, you’ll hear the levers creaking and the cogs grinding. The thinking too hard will come through in the writing. And I hate that.
I also know that the voice can and probably will change. As I read more and think and write more, I will gently lead the narrative along new paths, and I will learn to hear and write different, hopefully better, words. I’m conscious, for example, she sounds far too Australian at present. As my appalling French improves, I wonder if the cadence of the sentences might lift and lilt. I don’t know. The critical and creative impact on each other, but it’s not necessarily a thing I can plan.
The planning and conscious thinking instead goes into the framework construction, the historical research, and the critical reading about both previous interpretations of the woman, and about how voice is used in historical fiction.
Specifically, there’s a careful process of finding then stripping out fact: I might spend hours figuring out some specific detail of seventeenth century life that may not, in the end, appear in the fiction. I do the research so that I know the truth or as near to it as I can get; so that I don’t write something that’s historically wrong – at least, not accidentally. But the reader need never know – or perhaps they see an outline and colour the rest themselves. It’s not supposed to feel like a history lesson – it’s the voices and characters that matter.
On the other hand, I do have to trace a real life full of documented opera performances and duels and escapades into which my fiction will dip and delve. I don’t yet know how chronological La Maupin’s story will be – she’s feverish and on her deathbed – her mind may go anywhere at any time and does. Like mine.
There is, however, a formal structure to the novel, based on that of the operas in which Julie appeared – a prologue and five acts, with scenes alternating between a recitative in her voice – her death bed confession, in first person – and dances, duets and crowd scenes which are in the third person, in present tense, with a shifting point of view. There’s realistic dialogue but it’s written without pronouns, and with minimal attribution.
My use of present tense for the third person passages was intuitive – I had a sense that it would provide a better platform for other people’s views of La Maupin and the immediacy of action such as swordfights of which, I confess, there may be many.
His sword is longer than hers, his arm – his reach – threatening. He moves fast, throwing himself into a ballestra intended to knock her off her feet. Instead, she side-steps, thrusts as he passes, and he crashes into the wall opposite, blood swelling through his shirt. There’s a shriek then nothing, but he’s not dead, just quivering in fury and shame and filth.
— Now you?
She salutes the cousin who wishes with all his heart he had never been born into the same family as Marie-Therese, decides he never really liked her anyway – remembers that one summer she pushed him off a chair and everyone laughed.
But he’s a nobleman. This is the first of those moments he has trained for all his life.
— En garde.
Now the woman smiles.
— You’ve never done this before, have you?
— Never mind.
— You’re scared. That’s sensible. And a better man than those two. I see no arrogance in you.
— I will do my duty.
— Yes, you will. Very well. En garde.
She doesn’t aim for his body. He is Marie-Therese’s cousin, after all. He even has her eyes, not quite the green of a sultan’s emerald, but a shade lighter.
When the blade pierces his arm he barely notices at first. A slight tearing sensation. He looks down.
— Oh. Touché.
— The contrary would have surprised me.
— I’m bleeding.
— Just a little. You’ll recover.
He falls sideways. Curls up on the cobblestones.
She wipes the blood from her sword with a scarf. Looks down.
— You were brave. I’ll send someone to take care of you.
He gazes up at her. So beautiful. For a monster.
Annoyingly, the use of the historical present tense is extremely fashionable at the moment and even a matter of public debate. I didn’t know that, because I tend not to read extremely fashionable novels unless they are written by Hilary Mantel – so maybe I absorbed it from Wolf Hall. If so, it wasn’t conscious. I thought I was being a bit Bleak House and therefore terribly old-fashioned in a new kind of way – it turns out every second novelist and his or her dog is doing the same thing.
Philip Hensher recently wrote, in The Telegraph, that the use of present tense is “everywhere in the English novel – like Japanese knotweed” (Hensher 2010), while Philip Pullman calls it “an abdication of narrative responsibility”(Pullman 2010).
So I do have a task as part of this project to ensure that I consciously consider my intuitive use of the historical present – as well as hoping that if and when the resulting work is published, present tense will be so old-fashioned again that Philip Pullman won’t mind.
Hensher, P. (2010) “Opinion: Present tense.” The Telegraph.
Pullman, P. (2010) “Philip Pullman calls time on the present tense ” The Guardian.
9 December, 2010
Paper: La Trobe University English program seminar