Faulks on Fiction: Great British Characters and the Secret Life of the Novel by Sebastian Faulks

Faulks on Fiction

Faulks on Fiction: Great British Characters and the Secret Life of the Novel was a four part series made for BBC2 in 2011. It was presented by Sebastian Faulks, and explored the development of the British novel through detailed studies of four major character types – Heroes, Lovers, Snobs, and Villains. Each character type was examined through seven case studies, featuring (mostly) well-known characters from the earliest British novels to well-loved classics, more modern classics and, I must admit, a few more modern books that I’d never even heard of.

The whole idea of the programme really appealed to me, as I’m a big fan of Sebastian Faulks and I love to hear people discussing and dissecting books in a thoughtful and informative way. Plus the majority of books under discussion were books that I’ve always wanted to read or have already read. Each episode also included footage from film and tv adaptations of the novels, and contained contributions from the likes of Helen Fielding, Joanne Harris, Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin, Robert Harris, Zoe Heller and (somewhat surprisingly) Boris Johnson, amongst others.

Naturally, having enjoyed the programme so much (I would highly recommend it), I was keen to pick up a copy of the book tie-in. At nearly 400 pages, it seemed likely that the book would be able to go into more depth than the 4 hour tv show allowed. I’d been watching it in my Amazon basket for a while, but when I saw it on special offer on The Works website I quickly snapped it up, not realising that I’d actually bought an audio book version. I’d never listened to an audio book before, but I’d been meaning to try out of curiosity, so this seemed like the ideal opportunity. I’ll be talking about the audio book side in particular later on.

Consisting of ten discs and over 11 hours of audio, I think it’s a fair assumption that the book tie-in definitely was able to go into more depth looking at each particular character type and example. Sebastian Faulks draws on his own experiences of writing certain kinds of characters and novels (Birdsong, Engleby, Human Traces, Charlotte Gray and his James Bond work Devil May Care), and is also able to give more of an introduction to each section about the development and reception of each character type through the history of the novel, and why that character type is so often returned to in fiction. He begins the book with a brief discussion of the progression of literary theory and critique, and how public expectations of fiction have changed over the years, as well as his reasoning behind the choice of these particular characters – that they should be characters that the majority of readers will have heard of, were familiar through tv adaptations and, perhaps most importantly, have survived the test of time and endured.

I was particularly interested by Faulks’ discussion of the evolution of the idea of a ‘hero’, which progressed from an “admirable superbeing” recognisable in Homeric epics as a character with divine or semi-divine parentage and unusual qualities, which developed into a character who was exceptional on the battlefield and demonstrated great feats of bravery, to the modern interpretation where ‘hero’ becomes a term for the main protagonist of a story. Surprisingly, Faulks concludes this introduction by stating that in terms of the modern novels of today, the hero as a character has completely died out. I’m not convinced that this is an assumption that I can agree with; at least, it’s not one that I would like to believe is true. However, the seven characters which Faulks clearly believes fit the hero criteria in one form or another and which are discussed in this section, are: Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe), Tom Jones (The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, Henry Fielding), Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray), Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), Winston Smith (1984, George Orwell), Jim Dixon (Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis), and John Self (Money, Martin Amis). Some of these choices may seem surprising, but Faulks justifies the ‘hero’ status of these characters, in its many different guises.

The Lovers section is the largest of the four. The characters discussed are: Mr Darcy (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen), Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë), Tess Derbyfield (Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy), Constance Chatterley (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence), Maurice Bendrix (The End of the Affair, Graham Greene), Anna Wulf (The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing), and Nick Guest (The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst). The chapter on Mr Darcy is the longest character discussion in the entire book, which perhaps isn’t surprising considering that he’s one of the most famous romantic characters, is from a novel with quite possibly the most famous opening lines ever, and you’d be hard pushed to find someone who hadn’t heard of him (thanks largely to Colin Firth and his wet shirt). What makes Mr Darcy so interesting, and probably what prompted such a large study of his character, is the fact that he is not the typical lover by any means. For a start, he could just as easily have fitted into the snob category. He’s extremely disdainful of Elizabeth’s family (and of pretty much everyone to be honest), is incredibly depressive as a character (in fact Sebastian Faulks has argued that Darcy displays a lot of the symptoms which would these days be classed as manic depression or bipolar disorder), is rude to pretty much everybody, and is really quite unlikeable as a character. He’s not the typical romantic lead, and yet Darcy and Elizabeth have a wonderful love story (although whether their marriage is at all successful or happy is something I can’t help pondering). They have to be one of the most famous literary pairings (albeit an unconventional pairing), and so it’s no wonder that Darcy receives the largest section in the book.

The idea of the snob was particularly interesting to me, as I wouldn’t have considered ‘the snob’ to be a major character type before Faulks on Fiction. The hero, the villain and the romantic lead go without saying, but I think I’d really have struggled to come up with a fourth. Now I think about it though, snobs do seem to recur in a lot of the books I’ve read. The Snobs chosen by Faulks are: Emma Woodhouse (Emma, Jane Austen), Pip (Great Expectations, Charles Dickens), Charles Pooter (The Diary of a Nobody, George and Weedon Grossmith), Jeeves (The Jeeves and Wooster Series, P.G. Wodehouse), Jean Brodie (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark), James Bond (Ian Fleming), and Chanu Ahmed (Brick Lane, Monica Ali). This section seems a tad uneven to me, perhaps because the treatment of the characters varies so much in length. Charles Pooter has a particularly short section when compared to the rest, and even though James Bond has the second largest character exploration in the book (beaten only by Mr Darcy), a lot of this actually seems to be spent on the writing of Devil May Care, Sebastian Faulks’ own Bond novel. While it was interesting to see how Faulks incorporated the snobbish tendencies Ian Fleming instilled in Bond, at times this did seem to digress into a ramble about Faulks’ writing process and the background to the commission of his Bond novel, the relevance of which was not entirely clear to this book’s purpose.

The final section of the book focused on the idea of The Villain. This was one of the sections I was most looking forward to, but unfortunately I was woefully under-read when it came to the character examples. Of the seven, I’d only actually read one, and heard of a further two. While it was still interesting, I think I’d have been able to engage with this section a bit more if I knew more about the characters that were being discussed and their storylines. (Obviously this is a problem of mine and has no bearing on Faulks on Fiction itself). The chosen characters are: Robert Lovelace (Clarissa, Samuel Richardson), Fagin (Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens), Count Fosco (The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins), Steerpike (Gormenghast Series, Mervyn Peake), Ronald Merrick (Raj Quartet, Paul Scott), Jack Merridew (The Lord of the Flies, William Golding), and Barbara Covett (Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller). While I felt inspired to read any of the works I was unfamiliar with that were discussed in the Hero, the Lovers and the Snobs sections, I was left feeling a little underwhelmed by the chapters on the Villain. It might just be me, but I felt that the examples chosen weren’t the best, and weren’t as representative of this character type. If the public were asked to pick a villain from well-known works of literature, I’m not sure that their answers would correspond in any way to the seven examples discussed here. Maybe I’m just feeling a bit cheated because I didn’t feel able to form an opinion or agree or disagree with the points that Faulks was making. It’s not his fault that I haven’t read the majority of the books in this section, but his discussion of them didn’t intrigue me or make me want to find out more about these characters and their lives than his discussion, say, of Constance Chatterley, or Jeeves. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed with this section. I thought there’d be talk of a wealth of characters that I love to hate, but instead there was a wealth of characters that I have no feelings about, and can’t be bothered to form feelings about.

Then, to top it all off, the book/audio just ended. There was no conclusion bringing things nicely together, it just finished with Notes on a Scandal, rather abruptly I might add. In a way it makes sense, as each section was based around an hour long tv programme and so it seems kind of logical to end the final section in the same way that the final tv hour ended. Afterall, the end of the series didn’t wrap up the whole four hours; each section was treated individually, and that was that. I think it would have been nice for the book to find a way to draw it all together though, rather than just stopping in the way it did.

In terms of a tv tie-in, I thought this book worked very well. I would still recommend watching the series, but this book both stands well on its own and also works to develop the ideas explored in the series in greater detail, with a bit more background into the historical evolution of the character types and of the novel in general. In terms of experiencing this book in audio form, I have very mixed feelings. I tried to listen to it in the car, but due to the pitch of it I really struggled to hear what was being said over the sound of the car engine, no matter how loudly I played it. I had to listen to it at home instead, but as I couldn’t really ‘do’ anything at the same time (otherwise I struggled to hear and/or concentrate on what was being said), this meant that I managed to fall asleep pretty much every time I tried to listen to it. Needless to say, it took me a while to complete.

It was narrated by James Wilby, and I’m not quite sure what to make of him either. I didn’t like his tendency to put on an accent whenever he quoted someone, it was unnecessary and rather irritating. In terms of pacing, he read in a very steady way, which is fine for a book of this nature, but I think I’d find it aggravating if it was a work of fiction. No one wants steady pacing in a book that’s jam packed with action and suspense. Also I don’t know if it’s just because Faulks on Fiction is a non-fiction work, but I found it very hard to concentrate for long on what was being said. I think I’d have found it much easier, and also much quicker to get through, if I was reading the book for myself. It was an interesting experiment, but I don’t think I’ll bother with audio books again.

See previous Book Review featuring Roald Dahl’s Danny, the Champion of the World, or read reviews of A Fool’s Alphabet and A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks.