Tag Archives: Alexandre Dumas

Where are the girls?

Well, mostly not in yesterday’s book, Kid Got Shot. It’s a pretty male book, and apart from Garvie’s mum and his teachers, the female part is played by the gorgeous Polish girl everyone – including Garvie – falls for.

As I believe I tried to suggest when telling you about Mother-of-witch last month, I was brought up in such a way that I never felt women were worth less or that you have to constantly count the sexes and make sure they are balanced.

Am I weird? No, don’t answer that!

I happily read about musketeers and anybody else offered in the books I came across. Thinking back, I wonder if I found it hard to identify with girls in books when they were not the kind of girl I was, and then I felt that if I’m not going to be like them, I might as well read about male characters. In the end it didn’t matter as long as it was a great story.

But I recognise that not all girl readers have such belief in themselves, and they do need to see more female characters in books. In its article Balancing the bookshelves, the Guardian wrote about the need for more girls. It is not wrong, but I didn’t absolutely agree either.

When I think of the ‘new age’ of reading that to my mind began with Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, I don’t think of the sexes or any balancing. Yes, Lyra is a girl and a strong one, too. But her daemon is a boy. Harry is a boy who hangs out with best friends Hermione and Ron, making up that traditional fictional trio of two boys and one girl. The Famous Five are two of each, if you don’t count Timmy the dog, and you forget about George being George.

I’ve not really stopped to check whether there are more boy characters because more men write books. When it comes to children’s or YA I believe, without having counted, that there are more female authors. And many of them write about boys. I see no reason why they shouldn’t.

Looking at my three favourite books, we have [primarily] one girl, two girls, and then a boy. All three authors are women. But while Meg Rosoff has Daisy in How I Live Now, she has also written some wonderful male main characters. I don’t feel that is wrong. In fact, I assume the stories demanded it. Can male writers manage good female characters? Yes, they can. Look at Marcus Sedgwick’s girls! I’m guessing his books needed females.

I think it’s too easy to get worked up about the sex of a character. What we need is a society where all are equally valued, albeit not all identical. But obviously, if reading about a particular person in a book turns into a life-changing experience for a young reader, then I’m all for it.

Musketeering

Here I was, ready to have a go at what they’ve done to The Musketeers, and then it struck me that it was on at nine pm, and not at half past six on a Saturday. It’s intended for adult consumption. Hardly surprising the ladies on facebook were sighing with delight over the handsome ‘young’ men in The Three Musketeers. Except it’s called The Musketeers, and is only ‘based on the characters’ of Alexandre Dumas.

So that’s all right. They can do what they want with them. And they have. If I hadn’t read – and actually remembered – the books, I would have no complaints. Other than it being rather 21st century in spirit. But if that’s what viewers want, it’s what viewers get. Enough swash was buckled and it was an excellent action film/episode/whatever you call it.

How I loved my Musketeers! The real ones, that is. For 25 minutes every Saturday evening Swedish children had something good to watch. It was usually British dramatisations of classic novels. We thought it was great. (Well, we didn’t have much else.) I lived and breathed Musketeers. I quite fancied being Milady. I drew Musketeery clothes for my paper dolls. I was in heaven when I found a ring that looked like you could keep poison in it, just like they did on television.

The Three Musketeers, 1966

The television series started me reading all the books, and in this case I really read everything I could lay my hands on. It’s good if you get a push like that, trying a book you’d never have noticed otherwise.

Is there anybody old out there? Someone who can tell me if there was a slightly earlier television version of The Three Musketeers than the 1966 one? I want it to have been a couple of years before. But I suppose it was that one. I have no recollection of Jeremy Brett as d’Artagnan, but I remember what Constance Bonacieux looked like. And it’s definitely Kathleen Breck.

So, anyway, what with the more mature ladies getting the hots for whatever Musketeer took their fancy last Sunday, I presume it’s fairly unlikely that younger people – real children – will look out a copy of The Three Musketeers and read it? I’d been so pleased we were due more televised Musketeers, because I thought there’d be a reading revival.

Me, I’m off to fantasise about Cardinal Richelieu. He’s the only one old enough for me, this time round. Or possibly Captain Treville.

Dumas can’t have had an inkling of what later generations could, and would, do to his action heroes.

But Mummy read that!

What will today’s young readers want to force their – as yet unborn – children to read? Or if they are really understanding parents (rather like me!) simply sigh over and decide that maybe XXX is a bit old-fashioned and since there are so many lovely new books, they will just let Little Darling read those instead.

With it being Roald Dahl day later this week, I was thinking about an article I read, which said that it’s mainly the parents who favour Dahl’s books now. Because they were the books they themselves read as children. (With me it was the other way round. I read Dahl to keep abreast of what Son and his peers liked.)

So what didn’t I force Offspring to read? Primarily the ‘real’ classics. The books that were pretty ancient even in my time, like The Three Musketeers and Ivanhoe, or Journey to the Centre of the Earth. I could almost forgive them for having no interest at all in those books.

But more ‘contemporary’ books like Pippi Longstocking were required reading. Or so I thought. Reading which we got round by watching the films and the television series. And then I discovered that Pippi was a bit of a bully, and nowhere near as funny as I remembered her to be.

Perhaps that’s how Roald Dahl’s books appear to children now? I can recall how appalled I was, seeing George’s Marvellous Medicine on stage. It really brought home the awfulness of those books. To this day I can’t bear Willy Wonka.

It won’t be long until a whole Harry Potter generation start to forcefeed their children wizards and witches and wands. Those readers are already beginning to pop up as authors (it’s probably quicker to write a book than to give birth to a new reader), having been inspired by Harry and Co.

If you don’t read Dahl now, you are very likely enjoying Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid or Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum. How long until they are the parents’ choice? Thirty years, maybe.

I get the impression that Enid Blyton still works, even without any arm twisting. I expected Daughter to like the Nancy Drew books and bought two with lovely period covers, and they are still sitting on a shelf in pristine condition.

The thing is, Mother-of-witch never suggested books to me. I read all of hers. There weren’t many, and I didn’t own a lot myself, so anything that was available got attention. Hers were mainly what girls had in the 1930s, so neither terribly classic or incredibly modern. They were just books.

Jules Verne, Till jordens medelpunkt

Perhaps if my childhood books had been in a language they could read, Offspring would have foraged and found something to enjoy.

Yeah, that’s probably it. Wrong language. Not wrong books.

You decide!

I am fairly sure I was eight. The Retired Children’s Librarian had sent me another carefully chosen book for my birthday. But I just didn’t fancy The Count of Monte Cristo. I really really wanted The Three Musketeers. I also knew that the edition of Monte Cristo was a fairly expensive one.

So I made plans, and walked into town, one day soon after my birthday. One did things like that in those days. Another thing one did, at least in Sweden, was freely exchange books in bookshops. No need for a receipt, nor that the book had been bought from that shop. A book is a book, and can be resold if it is unread and undamaged.

I was very lucky. My unwanted Monte Cristo covered both the cheaper Three Musketeers plus an additional smaller book. Maybe Enid Blyton or Nancy Drew or some such volume.

Then I walked home again.

Was it right, though? Should I have taken the giver’s choice of book?

(I have to add here, that I obviously got round to the dashing Count later, and loved him. I just wanted my musketeers right then. And making the exchange was my only means of getting myself a musketeer.)

I was reminded of this determined eight-year-old, when an author mentioned an event she had done at a school recently. She did it for free for personal reasons, and was duly thanked with a lovely big bunch of flowers. And all she could think of was that those flowers would have paid for a pair of jeans, or something else useful.

If a school can run to flowers, they could run to a small gift voucher at M&S instead. We can’t always make the best use of flowers, whether or not we are in need of new jeans.

So who decides? Giver, or receiver? Is there a right way?

Children like writing wish lists, and we all know that mine would have had musketeers on it. Although these days children ask for increasingly expensive things, so we’ve come some way from simple books. But I often think of my elderly friend here in the Manchester Swedish group who got fed up with her grandchildren’s lists. ‘I decide what you get, and you will be grateful!’ is what she told them.

Quite right. But then they weren’t penniless adults. Nor were their parents.

It’s old, but that’s OK

After saying recently that I almost preferred older books as a child, I also had a certain fear of what I perceived as really old. Deep down I suspected that something written a Very Long Time Ago would be so strange as to be unreadable. Now, why I should see other old books as a problem when I felt Alexandre Dumas was just fine, I have no idea. Could it be the difference between old children’s/adventure and old serious/real?

At some point at university I had to read old books. I don’t think I counted the Odyssey, because you’d see it in so many more recent incarnations. And having had to read Austen and Gaskell in English and survived, I saved my reservations for old Swedish literature.

But the point came when I needed to read Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, and as you can see even the name is a mouthful. I had heard of his novel Det går an, but with my prejudice I had no wish for a closer acquaintance. Although when I got there, it was reassuring to find it’s a mere 100 pages or so. Written in 1838 it’s not even that old as classics go.

I was pleasantly surprised both by how readable it was and how good. More than good. I actively loved it. When you’re used to old novels along the line of Jane Eyre, with a governess or other poor female and a romantic but chaste meeting with ‘The Man’, then the ‘free love’ in Det går an is a wee bit unexpected. They are ‘normal’ people, neither aristocracy nor starving slaves. Albert and Sara meet on a journey and fall in love.

It ends with Sara asking if it’s OK to be together without getting married, and Albert saying ‘it’s OK’ (title of the book).

And that’s it.

Very modern, in other words. Nothing to be afraid of.

The other day Son was telling me he’d just read it. As with me it was for a university course, and like me, he too had enjoyed it. ‘Immigrant’ that he is, he could have more cause for wariness.

I went looking for it before writing this, but couldn’t find it. Maybe Son had helped himself to my copy?

How old is old?

One correspondent I’ve found through this blog told me just the other day that her 14-year-old doesn’t read old books. The old/new boundary is currently set at 2005, so ‘not old’ means that fairly recent books will fail the age test.

And here I thought I was a failure for not persuading Offspring to read old-ish stuff more than once in a blue lagoon. Being old-ish (very -ish in fact) myself I find there is nothing strange about books not written yesterday or not featuring mobile phones. Or even relatively vampire free.

As we oldies keep saying; back in the olden days we had fairly few new books and it was natural to read old ones. In fact, I’d take that a step further and say that I actively preferred historical books, and in those days historical seemed to mean they were written in historical times, rather than just set a few hundred years ago.

OK, Dumas wrote about his musketeers long after the period when the story was set, but they were still pretty ancient. Ivanhoe and Oliver Twist and Tom Sawyer (to pick some childhood classics that come to mind) were all written long ago, even then.

I think I felt them to be more real. I know I did crave a book that would mention modern things occasionally, and was really happy when a Danish ‘current’ novel mentioned the Hep Stars. But with hindsight I see that it can’t have been a very valuable read since I don’t recall either the title or the author. Or what it was about.

Other than the Hep Stars book, ‘modern’ seemed to mean set in the 1950s. Perhaps that’s why the musketeers made more sense? Would Offspring’s lives be richer for more Dumas or Dickens, Austen or Alcott? All excellent, but because they are old doesn’t mean better.

Anyone who won’t consider a pre-2005 book will miss a lot. On the other hand, there are a tremendous number of truly great books that do qualify. And since you can’t possibly read everything, age is probably as good a selection tool as any other.

Reading only books with blue covers, or just books by authors whose name begins with an M? Or only novels about vampires? No, the latter doesn’t narrow it down very much, does it?

What if?

It’s not easy being misunderstood. I just want you to know that.

OK, so I’m not good at saying what I mean all the time. Let’s continue yesterday’s discussion here, since I can’t put all I need to say, or try to, in a comment.

To Meg Rosoff; I’m not talking about a ‘what if’ situation. I like them and they are fair game and all that.

I like alternate settings as well as the next witch. I don’t mind authors borrowing plots from other books or real events if you can’t come up with anything original. But the book I moaned about on Wednesday should have been written either as a fact book about an actual mission, or as an adventure that was almost, but not quite the same as the original one in real life.

Then I started thinking about The Three Musketeers as an example. Dumas wrote about real people like kings and cardinals, but his main characters were the fictional musketeers. Maybe Buckingham had an affair with the Queen of France. Maybe he didn’t. That kind of playing around with what someone might have done but most likely didn’t do, is normal fiction.

Thinking about later generations being upset at what’s been done to the memory of someone ‘great’ who achieved something special, I pondered what could be done to ruin the Resident IT Consultant’s ancestor Michael Faraday. You could write a book of fiction where someone else discovers Faraday’s cage, for example. But the best, and I think commonest, way of dealing with Faraday and his cage in fiction would be to let him have a young assistant as the main character, and to see Faraday through their eyes. I feel that’s what Theresa Breslin does in The Nostradamus Prophecy.

We were sitting around wondering if Anne Frank was a good example, but I suspect not. There could easily genuinely be ten girls in her situation, writing diaries which are found and published.

OK, how about this as an example? In fifty year’s time someone writes a novel about an author who writes a brilliant first novel called How I Live Now, and who wins awards for it, and takes up horse riding and goes around telling people to start blogs. Except in this novel the author is 23 and Italian and is not called Meg Rosoff.

I’m not getting it right, am I?

This isn’t libel, because the people originally involved are not mentioned or named. They should have been. Some are dead, but I believe that some are still alive. (I know I’m getting closer to giving things away.) They most likely won’t be reading a children’s book, but their grandchildren might. And what this novel says is that Granddad never did that heroic thing. It was really a bunch of children.

From what I hear from some of you who write fiction, editors often tell authors to change things. I’d like to know what this editor thought he/she was doing, letting this through.