Narrators and Noodges

“The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place (Book I: The Mysterious Howling)”, by Maryose Wood, and “Post Captain,” by Patrick O’Brian, the second volume in the Aubrey/Maturin novels, have little in common, except for being part of  multi-volume series. One is about an intrepid young Victorian-era governess and her feral  charges; the other about an intrepid youngish Napoleonic War-era British sea captain and his physician friend. One is aimed at children; the other at grown-ups. But by chance I came to be reading (or rereading, in the case of “Post Captain”) them in the same week, and it set me thinking about the problem of the narrator and the choices all novelists must make before they even start telling a story, and other choices, again and again and again, they face as they proceed.

They have in common being told in the third person. Patrick O’Brian began his series (with “Master and Commander”) inside the head of his sea captain, Jack Aubrey, but the reader soon gains access to the thoughts and observations of Stephen Maturin as well, and the contrast between their two ways of seeing the world is one of the many pleasures of the series. In “The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place” we are seeing the story primarily through the perspective of the governess, Penelope Lumley.

But obviously, in a book told in the third person, there is always someone else present, more or less obtrusively, in the form of the narrator. The Patrick O’Brian books are distinctive for the nearly invisible quality of the narration: action is described but seldom commented on, rarely summed up or foreshadowed. This is initially disorienting: as readers we are pitched head-first into the story, unsure where we are and what to think about it, merely a fly on the wall. It improves with time, though, and it gives the books a curiously floaty, effortless quality: it’s as though they are telling themselves.

“The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place” is a sharp contrast. We are immediately aware we are being told a story, and we are never allowed to forget the presence of the teller. This is a technique I associate with early novels, back when the novel as a form was something of novelty, no pun intended, and people seem to have felt the need to explain things more. The narrator of “Tom Jones” is an excellent case in point. The obtrusive narrator remains popular today, in all kinds of fiction, yet to me it has an old-fashioned quality. Here’s a characteristic passage from early on:

Imagine: A studious-looking girl of fifteen, primly dressed, perched on a large, battered trunk and reading a well-thumbed volume of obscure poetry — what tableau could more perfectly match what any reasonable person might expect a young governess to look like?
It was, as they say nowadays, perfect casting. Doubtless that is why the coachman from Ashton Place took only a moment to recognize Penelope on the platform. In spite of her youth, he addressed her with all the deference due a professional educator.

There are a number of interesting things about this, but what strikes me right away is how distancing it is. We seem to be a long way off from the action, as if we are looking at Penelope through the wrong end of a telescope, even though the story is primarily told through her experiences and perspective.

What tableau could more perfectly match what any reasonable person might expect a young governess to look like?

Here we are in the imagined perspective of “any reasonable person,” but that is who, precisely? And then there is the rhetorical question, which to me cannot help introducing doubt, even as it seems to argue against it. If a reasonable person could only expect a young governess to look like this, why not just say so?

It was, as they say nowadays, perfect casting.

Although “The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place” is in theory set in the 19th century, we are often reminded the narrator is not, as here.

A question that could not help arising for me, repeatedly, while reading “Incorrigible” was what the writer was trying to accomplish with this arch, officious narrator. Certainly it often seemed to detract from the story being told, slowing down the action and making it about how the story was told rather than what was happening. But what was the purpose of that, exactly? And there I was left, as Donald Barthelme would say, sucking the mop.

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