Photo Credit: Allegory of Justice – Themis (the goddess of justice), Marcello Bacciarelli, 4th quarter of the 18th century, oil on canvas, National Museum, Warsaw, Poland: Vert/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100)
One piece of advice writers receive all the time is to seek out other perspective on their work before they publish it. The theory is writers are too close to their work to see the flaws and weaknesses (and often times, the strengths in the work too). They need other eyes to point these out. Many writers work with editors, either through a publishing house or freelance or sometimes both. I talk a little bit about the relationship between a writer and editor in this blog post. In addition, many writers seek out different feedback even before an editor sees their book through beta readers and/or critique partners or groups. I am lucky to have an awesome critique group I’ve been working with for about a year. My group has helped me spot my writing flaws, like my tendency to use too many conjunctions, too many unnecessary “that”s in my sentences, and, the bane of every poetic prose writer’s existence, wordiness.
I believe getting the feedback of others is essential to getting out the best work I can to my readers and so do many other writers. I recently saw the 1950 film The Astonished Heart based on a successful play written by British playwright Noel Coward, who also wrote the screenplay. When I saw the film, I was reminded authors are not always the best judges of their own work.
The film stars Coward in the lead and herein lies the problem for me. Coward made a few film appearances throughout his life (the most memorable was the creepy, sadomasochistic Wilson in the 1965 psychological thriller Bunny Lake Is Missing) so he was no slouch as an actor but in this role, he may have been too distracted by the role as an author to look at it in the perspective of an actor. In fact, Coward was not originally slated to do the film. Brilliant British actor Sir Michael Redgrave (if the name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the father of actresses Vanessa Redgrave and the late Lynn Redgrave) was cast in the leading role and filmed several scenes. The story goes Coward saw Redgrave in those early scenes, decided he was not right for the role, and lobbied to get him fired and replace him. Coward may have thought he would do better to portray the character he wrote about, “a man who [lives] entirely in his head, viewing passion as a disorder to be diagnosed and cured rather than an emotion to be felt and explored” (Sistercelluloid, par. 5). To be fair, “Coward starred with Gertrude Lawrence in the original stage production in 1935” (Sistercelluloid, par. 4) so it might be logical for him to believe he could portray the role successfully on the screen.
However, a play and a film are two very different mediums and in my view, Coward’s performance in The Astonished Heart is a good example of an author who might have not been the best judge of his work, or, in this case, of himself playing a role he created. I found his performance to be quite uneven. I imagine Coward viewed the character as a psychiatrist whose complete control of his emotions is undone by a violent passion that comes unexpectedly in his life. However, I didn’t find Coward very convincing because it seems like the all-white-thinking Christian Faber suddenly becomes all black-thinking without really showing the process of emotional deterioration. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. A blogger known as Sistercelluloid, in her article “THE ASTONISHED HEART: The Flip Side of BRIEF ENCOUNTER” points out, “On the rare occasions this movie is discussed at all, the talk usually turns to how miscast Coward was—too fusty and dusty and altogether improbable…” (Sistercelluloid, par. 5). A review of the film from 1950 in The New York Times laments, “Less intellect and more emotion on Mr. Coward’s part probably would have made for a warmer performance. His manner is too cool and reserved to carry the conviction of a man consumed by passion” (par. 3). Coward had an amazing ability to be glib and elegantly humorous at the right time and in the right place, as his successful plays demonstrate, but for a more deeply complex role where a man’s composure crumbles under passion, he may not have been the best choice.
It’s not only their own work writers must be careful about their judgments but work they are close to not their own. An illustration of this is the work of Emily Bronte. In 1850, Charlotte Bronte convinced her publisher to release a second edition of both her sister Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey, both published in 1847. Both her sisters had died of illness by 1949 and Charlotte felt their work deserved a second glance. To make sure this happened, she agreed to edit the second edition of both works herself. While this might seem like an altruistic gesture, her motives may have been a little more self-serving than at first glance.
Photo Credit: Portrait of Charlotte Bronte, 1873, painted by Evert A. Duyckinick, from a drawing by George Richmond, Perry-Castaneda Library University of Texas, Austin, TX: Daniel (de)/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Charlotte Bronte’s good intentions for Wuthering Heights may have been clouded by her own biases and her own desire to be a prominent figure in the Victorian literary world. For example, Emily* wrote in a style as unconventional as her imagination and Charlotte felt compelled to make the book comply more with the standard English usage of the mid-Victorian era the literary establishment and literary audience would find more appealing:
“As part of her program to render both herself and her sister more acceptably modest in spirit and less bold in thought than their fiction might otherwise suggest, Charlotte endeavored to make Emily’s novel more accessible by downplaying its stylistic oddities—standardizing her sister’s idiosyncratic punctuation and abrupt cadences.” (“Introduction”, location 198)
While at first glance, this might seem like a practical thing to do, altering a writer’s stylistic tendencies also takes something away from that author’s unique voice. I talk about how some writers have a different way of using words as being part of their unique voice and style in this blog post. While Charlotte’s decision was no doubt well-intended, she may have undermined the true nature of her sister Emily’s uncommon style and voice.
Further, Charlotte felt compelled to include “a curiously apologetic preface that, advertently or not, paved the way for many apologetic interpretations to come” (“Introduction”, location 198-205). In this preface, Charlotte seems to be making excuses for the extreme darkness and disturbing passions that permeate the story of Heathcliff and Cathy in the novel. She begins with an explanation of their upbringing:
“Resident in a remote district, where education had made little progress, and where, consequently, there was no inducement to seek social intercourse beyond our own domestic circle, we were wholly dependent on ourselves and each other, on books and study, for the enjoyments and occupations of life.” (“Biographical Note”, location 382)
Charlotte seems to be explaining the source of her sister’s strange fiction rooted in unfortunate external circumstances like isolation and poor education. While the former has been well documented, the latter is untrue, as “Emily, like Charlotte, was in fact unusually well-educated…” (“Introduction”, location 205). Charlotte doesn’t just blame nurture for the unruly imagination Emily possessed but also nature, or, Emily’s own personality:
“Under an unsophisticated culture, inartificial tastes, and an unpretending outside, lay a secret power and fire that might have informed the brain and kindled the veins of a hero; but she had no worldly wisdom; her powers were unadapted to the practical business of life…” (“Biographical Note”, location 479-486)
Emily, in her eyes, was plagued with an eccentric personality, even a psychologically unstable one for which “[a]n interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world” (“Biographical Note”, location 486).
I’m sure Charlotte thought she was doing her sister and her book a service, trying to soften the critics who had been so brutal on the first edition, but her motives underlying her intentions may have been more complex.
Charlotte herself exposes this double-edged sword. She admits to reading some of her sister’s poems before her death when coming across them by accident one day. Her opinion of her sister’s work shows the ambivalence she felt about Emily’s vision of the world: “I thought [the poems] condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear they had also a peculiar music—wild, melancholy, and elevating” (“Biographical Note”, location 388; emphasis added). Elsewhere, she admits “her own consternation about [Emily’s] impulses: ‘Whether it is right or advisable,’ Charlotte wrote, ‘to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is’” (“Introduction”, location 205; emphasis added). Clearly, she didn’t quite approve of her sister’s shadowy and rather unfeminine imagination. The 1946 biopic Devotion brings this point out very well. Charlotte (played by Olivia De Havilland) admits to William Makepeace Thackeray (Sydney Greenstreet) she never really read Wuthering Heights all the way through, showing her rejection of Emily’s (played by Ida Lupino) work to the point of not caring enough about it to read it through.
Charlotte reveals a more selfish motive for volunteering to write a preface for the second edition of her sister’s work. She complains about the harsh criticism the first edition of Wuthering Heights incurred: “[The critics] said that this was an earlier and ruder attempt of the same pen which had produced ‘Jane Eyre.’ Unjust and grievous error!” (“Biographical Note”, location 429; emphasis added). The indignation expressed here makes it clear Charlotte was afraid being associated with a book that so shocked Victorian society (for many reasons, not the least of which was the unacceptability of a woman like Emily, isolated and the daughter of a parson, authoring such an evil and passionate story) and wanted to divorce herself from it’s authorship by clarifying that she had nothing to do with writing the book.
I don’t think either Noel Coward or Charlotte Bronte had any idea their judgments might have been impaired by their closeness to these works. It’s difficult to see the damage a writer can do to their own work or to the work of others when they are fully immersed in it. This is why editors, beta readers, and critique partners and groups are so valuable.
*Note I refer to Charlotte Bronte and Emily Bronte by their first names rather than their last to distinguish between them, since they have the same last name.
Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. G Books. (original publication date 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell). Kindle digital file
Sistercelluloid. “THE ASTONISHED HEART: The Flip Side of BRIEF ENCOUNTER.” Web blog post. Sister Celluloid. WordPress. 22 August 2014. Web. 5 July 2017.
“THE SCREEN IN REVIEW: Noel Coward’s ‘The Astonished Heart’ Has It’s Premier at the Park Ave. Theater.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 2017. 15 February 1950. Web. 5 July 2017.