Nicola Morgan spent an inordinately long time getting published because (by her own admission) she completely failed to recognize the importance of plot. After 21 years of failure, she quickly made up for lost time and has now published around 90 books for children, of which six are teenage novels and two are acclaimed books on the young brain. She lives in her adopted city of Edinburgh with her husband, dog and, occasionally, two ex-teenage daughters. She is also Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland and fights for authors' rights wherever she sees them threatened. Here Nicola discusses Alexandre Dumas' The Black Tulip.
Nicola Morgan on The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas
'How does someone as nice as you write such horrible books?' Yes, honestly, I was asked this question during a school talk. And I know who I blame for my fictional nastiness: Alexandre Dumas. It's really not fair: we modern teenage authors are accused of overdishing the shock and gore, but look at Dumas' The Black Tulip, one of the few books from my bookful youth that survive on my shelves today, testament to how many times I read it. Especially the nasty bits.
Ready for some examples? Cornelius de Witte, his body broken by gothic torture, 'took the pencil and began to write, when through the white linen bandages drops of blood oozed out,... squeezed from the raw flesh'. Shortly afterwards, he and his brother come to a prolonged and revolting end at the hands of a mob, and the reader is treated to details of a skull smashed by an iron bar, a body broken and dragged through its own blood trail, the hands of an attacker bloodied to the elbow after a DIY disembowelling, a pike being driven into a face, much blood spurting and trailing and flowing, a pistol being fired on a number of occasions into a face (I couldn't work out if it was the pike-poked one), and finally, the brains being blown out. Actually, sorry, it isn't final - the mob then mangle, tear and strip the brothers and drag their naked bodies 'to an extemporized gibbet, where amateur executioners hung them up by their feet'. Oh, and 'then came the most dastardly scoundrels of all, who, not having dared to strike the living flesh, cut the dead in pieces and then went about the town selling small slices of the bodies of John and Cornelius at ten sous a piece'. You can tell I'm enjoying this, nice person though I may be.
It makes the operation without anaesthetic at the beginning of my teenage novel Fleshmarket seem a tad tame. And it's worth noting that it's never teenagers who complain about that, only adults. (And then, to be honest, not often; and only professing concern for their tender pupils' welfare, or more likely, the litigious parents thereof.)
It's common for teenagers to love being taken to the edge, or even past it. The edge of reason, and danger and fear and anything else emotionally gripping. And what better place to do it than within the safety of a novel? I remember lapping up the melodrama of the books I most loved at that age - The Black Tulip as well as other Dumas books, the Gormenghast trilogy, the Hornblower books, Lord of the Rings. Teenagers (when they are not being self-consciously apathetic in order to annoy their significant adults) tend towards the dramatic, the excessive, the volatile, the passionate. It's not an age when a slow burner of a book will do. Teenagers need to be gripped first and fast - and even more so nowadays when there are so many other things to tempt them away from books.
Perhaps teenage readers are better at detachment, at processing fiction as an act of imagination and escape, while adults have become too protective, both of their teenagers and of themselves. Perhaps teenagers usefully expunge their emotions through vicariously experiencing the suffering of fictional characters. Perhaps adults have become more squeamish, more seeking after self-control and other-control.
Whatever, Alexandre Dumas pitches his material perfectly for this age group. So it's a real shame that I can't honestly recommend him to today's teenagers, except as an exercise in how not to write for them. The complexity and, frankly, turgidity, of the language, though obviously perfectly structurally correct, makes it at best laborious and (therefore?) unpleasant, and at worst unreadable to the modern reader. It's a style thing, and a very important one. A modern editor would rip it to pieces, if it ever got past the slush pile. As an example, the opening sentence of the book is 148 words long. Long sentences are perfectly acceptable, but not in this context, not opening the novel, and not structured like this. The main subject of the sentence is separated from its verb by 60 words. I can't be bothered to count commas and subordinate clauses and phrases. Actually, I could barely be bothered to read it, aged 46. But at 13, and in a different age, I didn't even notice the problem. I was a different type of reader, not only because I was 13, but because it was 1974 and we were all different then.
So, sadly, my personal favourite book has to remain my very personal favourite book and I can't usefully say to teenagers on school visits, 'You must read The Black Tulip.' I'd love to rewrite it for modern readers. But I'd probably be accused of being horrible again. And that would never do.