Recently, I’ve been listening to audio books about Winston Churchill. Oddly enough, that’s started me thinking about fiction, light and dark, and the role both play in our lives.
I’d been interested in Churchill in an abstract fashion since I was a kid. Every second house seemed to have a set of his WWII chronicles, bound in red and white and black, their stirring titles (Triumph and Tragedy, The Gathering Storm) sounding more like novels than history. Despite this, I didn’t know much about Churchill other than the pictures of the big man with the cigar, looking very tired. I’d also heard a few stirring quotations and a few caustic jokes credited to him. The one biography I read felt like one of those tiny samples they give you in the deli when you want taste their potato salad.
When I decided to amend this, the two books our library had as MP3 audio downloads were not about the Winston Churchill of those pictures and quotes at all. Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life, Part One focused on Churchill’s early life, from his boyhood, through 1918. The next one, William Manchester’s The Last Lion Alone: Winston Spenser Churchill, 1932-1940, focused on Churchill’s “years of exile.” Although Churchill had risen to First Lord of the Admiralty during WWI and remained in Parliament thereafter, for many years he was far from a mover and shaker. Most of his contemporaries thought he was washed up. His income came from the phenomenal amount of non-fiction he wrote – and even that wasn’t enough to sustain his lifestyle. When the Nazi threat became something that couldn’t be ignored and changed Churchill’s fortunes, he actually had his country house on the market.
For someone like me who knew Winston Churchill as a great and influential politician, perhaps one of the last who merited the title “statesman,” it was a shock to learn that he was a 65 year-old “has been” when he was at last, reluctantly, given a Cabinet seat.
But you can read about Churchill elsewhere…
Even as I was listening to these books (the Manchester one alone ran 35 hours), I found myself thinking how differently I would have reacted if I hadn’t known that Churchill would be vindicated, that his faith that he would someday be able to serve his country in her hour of need (a hope expressed in numerous letters) would come to pass. Even knowing – maybe especially knowing – the larger historical context, I found myself frustrated. I knew the story would have a “happy ending,” but getting there was a real trial.
And that got me thinking about the expectations we bring to fiction – and about different purposes different types of fiction serve in helping us to deal with our lives. Even light fiction or adventure fiction serves a very good, very solid purpose – other than the “escape” that most readers of such sheepishly admit they are longing for when they curl up with a much re-read favorite or a book they know isn’t going to end with death, doom, and destruction. “Light” in this context doesn’t mean without thoughtfulness or merit, any more than a Shakespearean comedy was a laugh a minute.
Recently, a friend mentioned that because his job has been very stressful and demanding, he’d been reading a considerable amount of Georgette Heyer. Heyer specialized in historical romance novels, usually (although not always) set during the English Regency. In them, love will conquer all sorts of obstacles: class differences (or perceived differences), income gaps, misunderstandings of heroic proportions, and more. No matter how complicated the plot, by the end, the right guy and right girl will have found their way to love – and the promise of a future that will allow them both to flourish.
Trite? No. I wouldn’t say that. We all have learned that there are times that love won’t conquer all. Is there anything wrong with remembering that you really love someone and so maybe you need to work a bit harder? Is there anything wrong with love being an inspiration to better things? I don’t think so.
I’m not much of a fan of romance novels, although I like stories where romance is an element. However, I’m drawn to stories where love in its many forms becomes a driving force. I like “buddy” stories. I like action or war stories, where not letting down the side drives the characters beyond what they thought they could achieve. I found Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo incredibly compelling because it’s a story about hatred and revenge in which the main character – who has every reason to hate with every fiber of his being – also learns to conquer that hatred.
Light reading? Escapism? Call it that if you will. I think I’d call it healing, a reminder that although life has ground you down, the good things do exist, even if at that moment they seem out of your reach. After Roger died, I read an enormous amount of Terry Pratchett. (Seriously, I think I read everything Pratchett had published to that point, courtesy, largely, of Jan and Steve Stirling, who handed over boxes containing their entire collection; I’ve now bought my own copies.)
It wasn’t Pratchett’s humor that lifted my heart. It was that his stories reminded me of why we love, even though love can hurt you worse than anything. When my dad, my grandfather, and several beloved pets all died within a few months, again, it was to “light” fiction I turned for the building blocks of healing.
What about dark fiction? Oh… I read that, too. But I’ve wandered on enough for one day. I have a novel to finish. I’ll take a look at the dark side next week!