There is a technique – trick if you prefer – used in TV and film, whereby a character is introduced by drawing them from the anonymity of a crowd. Before we know who they are, and without them having spoken or done anything noticeable, we have somehow had our attention focussed onto them.

Perhaps it to do wtih keeping them centre screen while the camera pans. Perhaps it is that they are in sharp focus while the others are in soft. Perhaps it is a nuance of dress or posture, but something pulls our eyes onto that character in particular before there is any obvious reason why it should!

I have often wondered, and once or twice have tried, if the same technique or one analogous to it, could be used in the writing of a story. The idea came back to me recentlky when I was re-reading Rumer’s Godden’s novel, Black Narcissus. Like many famous adaptations this is a story probably better known in its film rather than its original text version. Powell and Pressburger were faithful to the plot, with a few changes made necessary by the film form and its implied audience, but that’s another essay.

The opening of the novel can provide an interesting speculation on how a told story can, and perhaps even ought, to begin. The first few lines, a short paragraph, carries out several of the functions of a beginning:

 

‘The Sisters left Darjeeling in the last week of October. They had come to

settle in the General’s Palace at Mopu, which was now to be known as the

Convent of St.Faith.’

 

That capital S tells us they are nuns, rather than siblings,  and even from these two sentences we know a lot about what the story will be about. We have a location, in time and place, an embryonic plot – encapsulated in ‘settle’ and ‘now to be known as,’ and characters: the Sisters, and ‘the General.’

We might even detect the beginning of the ambience of the piece, and the importance of the building in, or from which most of the events will take place (which phrase itself, ‘take place’ tells us something about what story is).

‘St.Faith’, strongly implies Catholicism, certainly Christianity, when coupled with capital S sisters, and Darjeeling puts it in the Indian highlands, which we might feel is, for the nuns, ‘out of place’.

It’s the introduction of the characters that caught my interest though, and particularly of the Sister who is going to be the centre of our attention. By page 5 we should be fairly sure which one she is, but it’s curious the way that Godden gets us to that recognition. A surprise to me was how few times the particular nun is mentioned in those early pages, yet, as in my TV and Film ‘trick,’ our attention is drawn to her differently from the way it is drawn to the other named Sisters.

The first to be named is Sister Blanche – who will quickly become known as Sister Honey. She draws our attention, not to herself, but to the scenery, and does so in response to ‘Father Roberts’, who, we are told, thinks that the nuns will be lonely at Mopu.

‘“What is he afraid of?” asked Sister Blanche.”I think these hills are lovely.”

We will wait another page before another Sister is named.

‘Sister Clodagh rode in front with the clerk.’

We get more about Clodagh here: the way she rides; the way she talks to the clerk, and the snippet, that the other Sisters are ‘envious’ as they watch her. Next we get Sister Blanche again, and Sister Ruth. Their horses are unruly, and Sister Ruth panics, ‘She was terribly nervous…’

Over the next couple of pages both Sister Ruth and Sister Blanche are mentioned again by name, but it is until page 5 that we must wait for Sister Clodagh. Then, in two references, she reveals, or rather deepens our sense of her separateness from, and authority over the others.

‘…but Sister Clodagh said briskly: Come along Sister.’ And ‘”How she loves to exaggerate, “ thought Sister Clodagh’. In fact Sister Clodagh receives three named mentions on page 5, and after that, over the next few pages, we flashback to the chosing of which Sisters will ‘settle’ at Mopu, and here, on page 10, in case we haven’t cottoned on, Godden has her explicitly refer to being the Superior of the new Convent.

We have, by this time, been drawn not only into watching what she does, and hearing what she says, but we have been eavesdropping on her thoughts, and perhaps more importantly, we have been told what others think of her. The clerk, with whom she rides, for example, tells her that ‘the men are saying that the Lady-Sahib sits her horse like a man.’ That he does this ‘ingratiatingly’ adds to our sense of her.

What struck me about this introduction to the main character of the novel, was the tentative, almost surreptitious way, she was added into the story, like stirring in the few drops of chilli that will make a sauce truly hot!

If there is a second character in the novel, and I think there is, it is Mr Dean, who is insinuated into the story with similar sleight of hand. First mention comes on page 11, after our sense of Sister Clodagh has been well established. In a flashback, Sister Clodagh recalls her exploratory visit to Mopu: ‘..the General’s agent, Mr Dean, showed them over it.’

There’s is a richness to this novel. The General, though he appears only once or twice in person, is a dominating presence, almost like a God. He organises, manipulates, and sympathises with his characters. And Mopu itself is more than just a stage on which the action takes place. Its physical qualities mirror the emotional turmoil of the nuns as they strive to establish their school and hospital, aided by the destabilising presence of the morally ambiguous Mr Dean.

Assembling all these forces over the first dozen pages of the story Rumer Godden slips them almost un-noticed into our consciousness, and in an appropriate order of importance. In a strange mirroring of the ‘mystery play,’ these naturalistic characters seem to represent archetypal forces, with Mopu itself, and Angu Aya the caretaker from its days as ‘the House of Women,’ as a sort of pagan earth.   Both film and book are well worth getting to grips with, but remember, a film takes place in front of your very eyes (and ears), the book, behind (and between) them.

Ambiguous Encounters, ten short stories by Brindley Hallam Dennis & Marilyn Messenger

Advertisements