Storytelling Specifically

Initially, lockdown bestowed upon me a kind of numbness, and everything was difficult, including reading. But now, I have started reading voraciously again; a wide range of fiction, both historical and contemporary, from Thomas Bernhard to Victor Lodato, but also as part of my day job from a wide range of non-fiction resources on story-writing, teaching reading, disseminating creative writing, and of course giving children a lifelong love of reading.

Why is this so important? Why do I read? Why do I impress upon children the urgency of reading and listening to stories?  

When we are living in a world of statistics and generality, with graphs and numbers bombarding our news feeds every day, and meaningless slogans resounding in our heads (Stay Alert!), it is easy to become overwhelmed, or to disappear under the deluge of data. But storytelling can lift us out, and give us insight, hope, and truth.

Storytelling gives us the specific. It distinguishes the detail from the general, and gives us the individual within the society. This is important too. It doesn’t take the individual out of society, instead it shows us their specific place within it – a protagonist would not be very interesting if they existed in complete isolation. Even Robinson Crusoe had his Man Friday.

The specifics of a story are what make it great. Take a woman walking down the street. She’s not very interesting, until you add specifics. You can’t picture her until you add specifics. Does she wear a red hat? Perhaps she walks with a limp, maybe she carries a baby in a sling, or an expensive briefcase. Perhaps she flicks her hair a certain way, or stops to look at her reflection in the shop window. The little details bring out who she is – you can start to see into her personality, into her life. Is she checking herself out admiringly, or perhaps tugging down her skirt out of inhibition and low self-esteem?

Now let’s look at the front cover of The New York Times on Sunday May 24th. It lists the names of the dead, but what makes it so effective and powerful is not so much listing the name of the person who died, but the embedded individual specifics of their lives – the key to a whole rich undertone of living and being. “Clara Louise Bennett, 91,’ The New York Times reads, ‘sang her grandchildren a song on the first day of school each year.” And “Helena Silvia, 96,” who was “known as the fashionista in her nursing home.”

The reason the Dominic Cummings story resonates countrywide is because we know the specifics of it. People can directly compare their own situation to his. Whereas the daily death toll carries no story. We need the specifics within it to understand it. We can empathise with the family of Clara Louise Bennett now because she’s become a person in our mind, one who carried out a specific act.

How about the Holocaust? We know as a fact that six million Jews were killed, but it’s only through hearing the individual stories of survivors that we can feel our way towards understanding the truth of the matter. Why does Anne Frank stand out as a seminal text – it’s a way for our teenagers to engage with another individual teenager and her struggle in going into hiding, her truth of what she saw, and her tragic end. What do I remember of reading her diary so many years later – the specifics: her longing to ride a bicycle, for example. Through this, we can grasp the complexity of what the Holocaust was all about.

On Twitter, the Auschwitz Museum excels at bringing the truth of what happened to life by each day giving their followers an individual story of a person who died there. Their photo, their name, how old they were when they were deported, the age at which they died. The photos themselves tell whole stories in their individuality. A cocked eyebrow of a cheeky young boy, the carefully tidied fringe of a small girl, the hope and passion in a young woman’s eyes as she envisages her future from the other side of the camera lens.

It is through the stories of individual refugees that we see the arrival of immigrants to our shores with a compassionate view, rather than as a threat. It is why many children’s authors have chosen to craft a story around a particular individual and their particular pain and journey, so that children reading the story here can understand the specifics of the situation there and see inside the humanity of the situation. Look at No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton, The Journey by Francesca Senna, The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf, Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird and many more.

While I read and re-read books on storytelling, each book always boils the craft down to the fact that what storytellers are doing by creating the drama of an everyday fictional life is getting at an absolute truth behind it. By showing us a specific story, a specific incident in someone’s life, it reveals who we are as humans. It reveals how different people react to situations and why. Storytelling may be fiction, but underneath the layers, it is truth-telling. It shows us how life is, or how life should be. The reader wonders if they would react like that character, it makes them wonder why characters are behaving in certain ways. Fiction shows us motivation and causality, consequences and endings.

To teach our children manners we might not just tell them about saying please and thank you, but also look to the storytelling in Please Mr Panda by Steve Antony. To explain friendship to our children we might look at the relationship between Harry Potter and Ron Weasley, to explain sacrifice we might look at the story of Charlotte’s Web. To explain nature’s power to heal we might start with The Secret Garden.  

Look at the story you’re currently reading to your child. What truth is it imbuing in them behind the dramatic scenes? Look at the The Tiger Who Came to Tea. It’s just a simple story, but behind it lies what? And perhaps it’s individual to you? Does it show you the generosity of the mother and daughter, the comfort of a family scene, that imagination can transform a boring rainy day, that despite the threat of something unusual, all can be well in the end.

In every specific story, there is a general truth to be found. And this is the beauty of storytelling – the power of the language of the specific gives a marvellous truth to the world outside, and enables the reader to see with more clarity and more heart.

Book of the Week

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: A Retelling by Tanya Landman

jane eyreI first came to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte as a naïve impressionable teenager, and like many before me, read the book as an exciting gothic coming-of-age, willing Jane on, admiring of her ability to use her intellect and shrewd judgement to succeed, and feeling desperately that I wanted her to have a happy ending. ‘Reader, I married him,’ was a pivotal and satisfying point in the novel.

It was only a few years later, when I realised Jane Eyre was simply the first stepping stone on a reading footpath that led to the literary exploration of giving the madwoman in the attic a voice.  An understanding that the shut-away first wife, Bertha, was in fact representative of both the treatment of women, and a symbol of colonialism, and from there it was a swift leaping across the stones to The Yellow Wallpaper, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and of course Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. But above all, it was Bronte’s hauntingly dark gothic draw, the story of Jane’s development, the appealing beginning with Helen’s tragic death, and the consequent love for a dark dangerous brooding man that pulled me in and made the biggest impression.

Unfortunately, the Victorian prose of Charlotte Bronte can be a barrier to some, particularly those who are reluctant readers or struggle with dyslexia. Not usually one for abbreviations, adaptations or deviations from the original, with this retelling I sensed that Tanya Landman is actually opening up the text to a group of readers who otherwise wouldn’t have seen it through.

What’s more, the reader and purist is in safe hands with Landman. She understands how to condense the prose of the original, whilst staying true to the plot, although of course picking the key elements and components and having to lose others. But images of import remain: Jane reading on the window seat behind the curtain, the fire at night in Rochester’s room, the laughter emanating from the attic, the fortune teller, the desperate ruins of Thornfield across the moors.

And despite the brevity of this new text, the characters shine through. Helen is good and true, Adele frivolous and actually slightly more endearing than in the original, Mr Rochester cool and aloof, yet prone to mood swings. Landman also captures the vanity and privilege of Miss Ingram, seen through Jane’s eyes, and cleverly gives clues of plot and character to the reader through use of repeating images (the window seat), and the understanding of how people present differently depending on who they are with.

What Landman does particularly well though is convey the character and emotions of Jane herself. Jane Eyre has an impeccable self-awareness, and it’s this sense of self that comes through and reaches a modern audience. Jane is ever-aware of her own identity, her shortcomings, her desires, and Landman keeps all this within the text in her first person narration, with tiny inflections of simile and metaphor to guide the reader through.

Virginia Woolf expressed Jane’s sense of self as: “some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently.”

Jane is a character of unflinching agency, moving with passion through the novel, seeking newness and adventure, acting upon her curiosities – and Landman captures this sparky energy, this spirit, and makes her seem historically accurate yet presciently modern too.

Of course not everything can be transplanted to this retelling, but an essence of wisdom remains – Jane recalls the wise words of Helen Burns as she visits her Aunt’s deathbed, albeit in a different way from the original, and some of the maturity of Jane’s perspective of looking at her childhood through adult eyes does surface. Landman keeps to the same pace as the original – in interrupting Jane’s love infatuation with Rochester by taking her away to her childhood home, and thus creating the same suspense, and also introducing the idea of a closure of her childhood and an advent into adulthood.

For greater depth, the original must be studied – the darkness of the slave trade, the evocation of Thornfield, the gothic genre, and the idea of religious forgiveness, but overall this is a smart and endearing version, eliciting the same emotions as the original, in all the same places. The prose sits well in its historical time period, and the story is as immersive as ever.

Jane Eyre is a novel that may have brought about a trail of other stories that gave voice to the madwoman in the attic, but it first and foremost gave a voice to that other visible and yet invisible woman – the plain woman, the orphan, the disinherited, the mere member of staff. And Landman does the original full credit by capturing much of the passion and understanding that Bronte gifted her heroine.

Reader, I enjoyed it.

With thanks to dyslexia-friendly publisher Barrington Stoke for my super-readable advance copy. You can buy yours here.