The full house and the real thing
The maker's mind

The Ancestral Elephant

Writing of the elephant in the room, in my last post, reminded me of something I've been dodging ever since I started this blog. Down our way he's called The Ancestor (though isn't that also a character in Moomintroll?). Yes, him, Charles Darwin. Okay, there, I said it. I guess most readers of this blog aren't surprised, but it's what many people think but don't ask when they meet me and my name, while others do ask immediately. (If you're wondering, he's my grandfather's grandfather, and I'm named after his cousin and wife, Emma Wedgwood)

The thing is, I've been invited to speak at Birmingham University's Darwin Day 2008 on 12th February next (I nearly said 'this') year. I don't normally do being a Representative Darwin, having dozens of cousins who are keener and know more about it all than I do, but a) Birmingham is my own old university and b) the theme of the day is the wider influence of Darwin on literature and the arts: the chief speaker is Dame Gillian Beer. I've decided that I do have something to say about how that plays out within the family, and I shall enjoy the trip and the company: I haven't been back since I graduated.

As you can tell, my feelings about it all are mixed, because, really, my ancestry is nothing to do with what I do. I write fiction, and my fiction is neither better nor worse because of some bits of DNA which would be even more diluted than they are, were it not for a family tendency to marry our cousins. And though this is my particular issue, I suspect my experience is similar to that of many writers for whom the best publicity angle is nothing to do with their book.

There you are, having that first, nervous lunch with your publicist, and she's making notes about ways to catch the fact-swamped, story-jaded attention of journalists in all media. 'Are you willing to talk about X?' she says, and of course you say  'yes', because you know the value of X, and you also know that it will be difficult to dodge questions about it consistently if you say 'no'. And before you know it, X becomes your defining characteristic. Hundreds of wonderful debut novels are published, X is why this one is interesting is the subtext, or even the main text, of the press release. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised when X takes up most of a Forthcoming Books listing, or the little local news stories, or the radio interview, and much more than anything about the book itself.

It's even quite hard to whinge about it because, as polished up by a skilled publicist, this small fact about yourself begins to seem like an unfair advantage in the tooth-and-claw battle of the book pages and the bookshops' front tables. Complaining can sound a bit like someone complaining about how huge their tax bill is this year. But, actually, there's quite a serious point in among my unease, and the unease I'm assuming any novelist with something unrelated but newsworthy in their background feels. It's not just that we don't want our work to be upstaged by an accident of our history. It's not even that we resent any words in a review that don't talk about the book. It's that, ultimately, where a novel comes from is not the point. It's what it does for the reader as they read that matters. That's what I'm trying to do when I write - affect the reader - and anything which makes them, instead, start thinking about me and why and how I wrote it, diverts their thought and feeling from the proper course. 'But then,' no doubt someone reading this will think, 'she would say that, wouldn't she.' Like I said: tooth-and-claw.

Edited to add: I explored the business of being upstaged by my own family tree a bit more in the Daily Telegraph, here.

Comments

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Janet Scott

We'd all like to be appreciated for ourselves alone but it would be a dull life if there were no accidents of birth and history. It was only because your name meant something to me that I picked up The Mathematics of Love at the library - and subsequently enjoyed it greatly.

Many years ago - when deoxyribonucleic acid was just a rumour - I read Zoology. I found The Origin rather hard going but read every word of The Voyage of the Beagle. Some years later I visited Down House and was allowed to sit in your great, great grandfather's chair in his study - visitors were fewer and rules more relaxed in those days.

I look forward to hearing more about the Darwin Day

Emma

Janet, I'm so glad you enjoyed TMoL - and yes, you're not the only one to pick it up because of my name: my discomfort is only to do with when the name replaces the book as the focus of interest ;)

That's nice to know about Down. The study itself is indeed a bit more roped off, but the whole place is still an excellent place to visit, especially now the garden's being restored as it was. I must confess I've never read any of CD's writing, except in the Desmond/Moore biog., though when my parents go engaged my mother agreed to read The Voyage of the Beagle if my father read Uncle Silas, as J S LeFanu is an ancestor of hers. Nowadays Gwen Raverat's Period Piece is the only compulsory reading for anyone who inadvertently joins The Family.

The Mock Duckling

I think you should stop being so conscious about this. For one thing Darwin is a really interesting person. I don't think that people are going "oh Emma's genes are more interesting" just that you might know something more of the circumstances and history of a person who was an interesting man and of the background of a set of ideas that were transformative. The fact you are a historical novelist feeds into that quite nicely - makes you a person who would be an obvious choice to talk about him - if you want to of course! - because you can combine the overview with the knowledge of family history.

PLus it's not like it's a title or a just something signaling some kind of aristocracy or position in society. Neither is it a modern-day celebrity or a well-known member of the establishment NOW that might lead to speculation about nepotism etc.

I think you should embrace it. Look at the Freuds. Loads of interesting Freuds. I don't think anyone would say Lucian isn't a great painter because of his famous ancestor. But it seems coy if he pretended his ancestor didn't exist. I'm sure there are always advantages to being a part of a privileged family of any sort - but those are true of people without that achieving ancestor too.

And, I also think if you love a novel as a reader you are bound to want to know more about the author. Maybe you aren't comfortable about that but I think it's just natural - particularly if the novel HAS moved you. Because, like a good song, you want to know more about the consciousness behind the work that made you feel the way you did.

Which is why artists, novelists, musicians get so mythologised. And that's maybe not a good thing but perhaps just a natural reaction to being made to feel.

Merry Christmas Emma, anyway!

The Mock Duckling

PS Just wanted to add - I suppose a lot of this stuff is about publicity, the media and how that all works, isn't it? And how dependent everything is on the media. I think the whole thing is uncomfortable really but seems to be the way the world works now. I don't know what you do about it really.

Janet Scott

Period Piece turned up in a secondhand bookshop and I devoured it straight away. Gwen Raverat placed her grandfather in the same category as God or Father Christmas and maybe he deserved it - putting together the theory of evolution seems on a par with building the Natural History Museum with bare hands.

Thank you for the update on Down House - I 'd love to go back there. I also enjoyed hearing of your parents' reading swop. It reminded me in a roundabout way that when my son was twelve he agreed to cook dinner if I made an airfix model spitfire. He later became an excellent cook (though aeronautics was not for me).

Emma

MockDuck, it's hard not to be conscious of it when a well-circulated online review says, 'Emma Darwin may have smart genes but she doesn't deploy them well in...' WTF? as they say. And when more than half of a 15-word listing is about CD, not the book. Most of the time it's not much of an issue, but no doubt there'll be more of it when A Secret Alchemy is published.

Janet, I sympathise with you about the Airfix model...

The Mock Duckling

"MockDuck, it's hard not to be conscious of it when a well-circulated online review says, 'Emma Darwin may have smart genes but she doesn't deploy them well in...' WTF? as they say."

Crumbs. Totally see your point there, Emma. But then, that's not either your or your name or even your admission of your ancestry's fault at the end of the day. Just a bit of an off thing to say, isn't it?

Sheila Cornelius

Dame Gillian! That's got to be yet another Goldsmiths connection! She must be the same Gillain Beer that took my group for seminars in 1972. I was doing an English degree and she was a visiting lecturer for the T. S. Eliot option. I don't think she actually referred to any of the poems, just gossiped about the poet and his circle for an hour or so at a time as if he were a personal friend. I remember that wonderful West Country accent and the feeling of utter bemusement. She seemed quite elderly even back then.

Mary Jane Hitler

I know exactly how you feel.

Emma Darwin

Yes, she must be. It was a fascinating lecture, anyway: one of those where you feel it's not just an elegant structure of fascinating material, but built on a bedrock of extraordinary wide and deep knowledge. Though I must admit I haven't read Darwin's Plots yet, which I keep meaning to - just my kind of inter-disciplinary, cross-cultural cup of tea.

Colin Purrington

I haven't heard a Moomintroll reference in ages. Yea.

leila

Ditto on the Moomintroll.

Emma Darwin

Yes, I was brought up on Moomintroll... Bliss.

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