Faye L. Booth was born in Lancashire in 1980 and continues to live in the county. Her Victorian-set historical novels Cover the Mirrors and Trades of the Flesh are published by Macmillan New Writing, and she is currently working on her fourth book (also a Victorian piece, but on a much bigger scale). Faye hates it when people wearing rose-tinted glasses claim to have been 'born in the wrong century', but wishes that bustles and black veils would return to replace all the tracksuit pants and baseball caps in the world. Here she discusses Penelope Lively's Fanny and the Monsters.
Faye L. Booth on Fanny and the Monsters by Penelope Lively
I don't have a single favourite novel, so I can't write about that today. I don't believe in 'novels everyone should read' (personal tastes varying as widely as they do), and every time I try to think of a recent read that I've enjoyed, I can't narrow it down to just one. So I'm going back in time (although not quite so far back as I'm used to going), and the book I'll be writing about today is in fact one I encountered when I was perhaps eight or nine; one that (although naturally I didn't realize it at the time) had a huge impact on the sort of story I would go on to write myself.
Fanny and the Monsters is actually a collection of three short stories for children - 'Fanny's Sister', the eponymous 'Fanny and the Monsters' and 'Fanny and the Battle of Potter's Piece' – all of which centre around the ten-year-old Victorian girl Fanny Stanton, who must surely have been my earliest exposure to the kind of female protagonists I write about myself. The best introduction to her character comes, I believe, in the opening paragraph of the anthology's title story:
For her tenth birthday, in 1866, Fanny received as presents a doll, a needle-case and embroidery frame, a story-book and a seed-pearl necklace. She had been hoping for a microscope, a geological hammer, a book about fossils and a butterfly net. She did her best to smile nicely, and looked with particular hatred at the doll, which was from her godmother, Aunt Caroline.
It had a pudgy, pale wax face and a petulant expression – indeed, it looked a bit like Aunt Caroline, which Fanny thought an especially disagreeable way of looking.
A historical female protagonist - a Victorian one, to be precise - who doesn't fit into her era or its social rules. It's no wonder I gave one of my own characters (she hasn't emerged in a published novel yet) the middle name Frances, inspired by Miss Stanton. And, then as now, there was also a lot for the pre-teen me to identify with in the character of Fanny, particularly her distaste for the offending wax doll. (I remember being quietly horrified myself when opening a doll given to me as a Christmas present by a distant relative some years before I read that book.)
As with many good children's book characters, Fanny's charmingly irreverent attitude to life is probably something a lot of kids could identify with. In 'Fanny's Sister', upon waking one morning to the cry of a newborn sibling (the newest member of the Stanton brood of eight, of which Fanny is the eldest), Fanny is not amused:
I hate babies, said Fanny to the picture of an angel on the wall at the foot of her bed, and the angel, its halo exploding into a fiery sky, stared disapprovingly back, because nice little girls do not hate anything, least of all their dear little brothers and sisters.
When she realizes that it's Sunday, which means church and best clothes and learning a passage from the Bible to repeat to her imposing Papa, her mood darkens further:
I hate Sundays, said Fanny to the angel, and the angel raised its eyes to the fiery sky in horror and disbelief.
Her prayers in church that day are a joy to be privy to:
I am sorry, she said silently, that I pinched Emma [her sister] (but it was because she spoiled my book so I hope she is saying she is sorry to You, too), and I am sorry I wouldn't eat my rice-pudding (but You created rice-pudding which is a pity and if You had not I wouldn't have to eat it), and I am sorry I was rude to Nurse... And anything I have forgotten, she added. And please make me good. She always asked this. And it seemed to her that God was not being very successful...
Please, said Fanny to God, please may we have cherry tart for dinner today... cherry tart and clotted cream... And thank You for sending the new baby, she added unwillingly. Thank You for sending it even though I didn't ask for it and in fact I wish You would take it back again.
When she is indeed served cherry tart and clotted cream for dessert after dinner that day, Fanny is so horrified and guilty - convinced as she is that her new sister is about to be struck down in fulfilment of another clause in her 'agreement' with God - that she runs away and presents herself on the vicar's doorstep, claiming to be a kitchenmaid from Edinburgh and planning to work for him as a penance. The vicar recognizes her (and her expensive fur-trimmed Sunday coat) straightaway (and even if he had not, Fanny's tales of her former employer in Edinburgh who was probably Scottish 'sometimes' may have given her away), and convinces her to return home, where she of course finds the nursery as full as it was when she left.
This boisterous and spirited, but ultimately likeable, character pervades all three stories, with flashes of hot temper that don't last long (as in 'Fanny and the Battle of Potter's Piece', in which Fanny directs her siblings in a 'war' with the neighbouring children over a patch of waste ground between the two households' gardens; but ultimately ends up befriending them instead), but the story that best showcases Fanny's most admirable trait - her intellect, which goes far beyond that expected of a young girl in the 1860s – is 'Fanny and the Monsters', in which we learn more about Fanny Stanton the budding scientist:
People were very unsympathetic and uncooperative. The cook, for some reason, objected very much when she discovered that Fanny was keeping a bowl of frog-spawn in the larder to see whether or not it would hatch out indoors. The gardener took exception to her experiment to see if roses, when watered with ammonia, will produce a nasty smell. And Nurse behaved in a completely unreasonable way when Fanny's spider collection escaped in the nursery. As for what Miss Purser said when Fanny brought a dead mouse to lessons because she thought it would be interesting to dissect it, I think we had better not go into that.
As Fanny tells her prim Aunt Caroline over tea in the parlour, she doesn't want to be 'a grown-up lady with children of her own'; she wants to be a palaeontologist. Aunt Caroline has no clue what a palaeontologist is, but will never admit as much. And there is Fanny's dilemma - she is female with a mind inclined toward intellectual pursuits deemed masculine in the time she lives in, and she feels alone in her desire to challenge the Victorian memes opposing women in the sciences. On a birthday trip to the Crystal Palace with Aunt Caroline, Fanny is refused the chance to see a display of dinosaur statues on the grounds that they will 'give [her] nightmares', and so she sneaks off to look at them by herself, and meets a palaeontologist from the British Museum, who tells her about dinosaurs and how scientists learn about them from fossils; and explains Darwinian evolution. Fanny's response to this new knowledge was another thing that delighted me as a child, because of how well I could relate to it:
... the more she considered, the more sensible it all seemed. Furthermore, she liked monkeys, and found the idea of being distantly related to them rather attractive.
On her way home, she watches her Aunt Caroline struggling to fit the voluminous skirts of her widow's weeds through the door of the train, noting that she seems 'equally ill-adapted to the world' as the dinosaurs, and Fanny ponders whether Aunt Caroline and women like her are also heading for extinction. But the world is not yet sufficiently in sympathy with Fanny's progressive views as to allow her clemency when she raises the subject of evolution at the dinner table:
'... so Mr Darwin says we are all descended from monkeys,' she concluded, 'is that not interesting? And he thinks that...'
Papa put his knife and fork down with a clatter. 'I will not have that man's name spoken in my house,' he thundered. [Fanny's brother] Albert gazed in amazement, and Mamma dabbed her mouth nervously with her napkin.
'But Papa...' Fanny began.
Papa rose to his feet. Everybody stopped eating and watched him with apprehension. 'Blasphemous rubbish!' roared Papa. 'Never let me hear such talk in my home again.' And he sat down with a thump and attacked his roast beef with such ferocity that one might have thought it was the dinner that had given voice to such outrageous ideas and not his daughter.
This doesn't stop Fanny from writing a letter to her contact at the British Museum to save a fossil she finds in a quarry from being destroyed with dynamite, but despite her determination, Penelope Lively resists the urge to allow her character to step completely out of her time and go on to the distinguished career she deserves. Ultimately, Lively tells us, Fanny did indeed become 'a grown-up lady with children of her own', although she will later be pleased to count a London Zoo curator among her grandchildren. And as much as that ending disappointed me when I was around Fanny's age, it was a vital part of that early lesson I learned from Penelope Lively in writing historical fiction: have your characters be like real people; have them struggle with and rebel against their time just as people do today; but don't forget where (or when) they are ultimately from. It was something that struck me then - a strong mind penned in by its owner's biology (or rather, society's views of that biology), whose story of her battles with what is expected of her can be just as interesting, in its own way, as the glittering career of one born later might have been - and it still strikes me now. So much so that I have ended up telling the stories of similar characters myself. It just shows you what early influence can do.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]