Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Wicked pleasures

Caroline Petit revisits some of literature's darker characters ahead of attending what promises to be a most gruesome, disturbing and surely very entertaining masterclass.

What: Masterclass: Writing Wicked Characters
When: Friday 29, August
Where: Boardroom, Wheeler Centre

Goodness is boring. Where is the tension if your character dutifully does the right thing? Where is the conflict? Wickedness, evil is always enticing: the serpent with its forked tongue urging us toward the thing we truly wish to do. And ah, what a story results, heaving and shifting in our natural desires to achieve our own ends to benefit ourselves. Delicious in our transgressions. Writers who create characters who truly believe the things they so desperately want are not wrong and will improve their lives write captivating unforgettable novels.

The housekeeper Mrs Danvers from Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, of whom even her employer Maxim de Winters says she’s an extraordinary character, is one of my favourite wicked characters. She idolises De Winter’s dead first wife Rebecca who has died in mysterious circumstances. The new shy second wife who narrates the novel describes Mrs Danvers: “tall and gaunt dressed in deep black whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face, parchment-white, set on a skeleton’s frame”. Mrs Danvers does her damnedest to undermine the new Mrs de Winter because she adored Rebecca, mourns her loss and cannot bear to have this nobody new wife take her place and preside over stately Manderley. When her treachery is exposed, she is fired. And I like to think it was Mrs Danvers who set fire to Manderley, this Garden of Eden, burning it to the ground. It is her final revenge upon the murderous Mr de Winter and his usurper second wife and makes Rebecca under De Maurier’s skilful hands an outstanding gothic novel.

To be truly wicked you must believe that what you are doing is right. Vladimir Nabokov’s protagonist Humbert Humbert in Lolita is surely the world’s most notorious paedophile in literary history. His dissimulation and his solipsism know no bounds as he plots to seduce and make his own the twelve-year-old Dolores Haze, renaming her Lolita in his sordid, cruel, clever confession that begins with a passionate hymn to his crime: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins”. Humbert is a savage true character; Lolita a work of literary genius.

The cultured gentleman Fredrick Charles St John Vanderveld Montgomery or Freddie as he is known to his friends—if he had any—is the central character in John Banville’s The Book of Evidence. The book opens with Freddie testifying in court, explaining why he murdered a chambermaid who caught him in the act of stealing a small Dutch masterpiece. There are extenuating circumstances, of course; and prison life on remand is quite a comedown for Freddie who is only used to the best. His moral turpitude is vast as he dissembles to cast himself as victim. In his address to the court he comes out fighting and muddies the water of his well-documented guilt: “I am merely asking, with all respect, whether it is feasible to hold on to the principle of moral culpability once the notion of free will has been abandoned. I grant you it is a tricky one, the sort of thing we love to discuss in here of an evening, over our cocoa and our fags, when time hangs heavy”. Banville’s masterful prose skewers Freddie Montgomery’s dissembling wickedness and makes for a wonderful novel. 

Writers like Du Maurier, Nabokov and Banville who lead us so expertly into the mind and heart of a wicked character are showing us the frailties of being human. It leaves us with a better sense of who we are. That can only be a good thing. So hurrah for wickedness.

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