But, although the area of common enjoyment is, I think, growing larger, there are still no-go areas on both sides. Few adults, for instance, would read Louisa Alcott these days; she is too sanctimonious, too quick to point a moral, though her plots and characters are still full of life, and young readers, girls especially, are still held by them. Few readers under twenty undertake Marcel Proust or Henry James with much enjoyment, because the action is too slow, the emphasis lies in character analysis.
There is one rule that still holds firm: In a story for young readers, the action must be swift, continuous, and immediately gripping. I was proud to find myself recently included in the new Oxford Dictionary of Quotations for my remark that Sir Walter Scott’s leisurely opening of Ivanhoe (“In that pleasant district of merry England … etc.”) would, these days, be accompanied by the sound of books slapping shut all over the library.(*)
And there are plenty of universal themes that still and always will engage the emotions and sympathies of both young and adult readers.
Injustice, for example. Injustice is the unbearable pain throughout the story that made Jane Eyre an instant bestseller and has kept it in print from 1847 to 1999. Why should poor little Jane, who has done nothing wrong, be treated so harshly by the odious Reed family? Once the reader’s sympathies are engaged on Jane’s behalf, the trick is done, there is no chance of closing the book until her wrongs have been righted. Arthur Ransome is an English writer whose children’s adventure stories have somewhat gone out of fashion now, perhaps because several of them are written to formula. The children set themselves, or are set, a project, to make a map of the locality, or whatever, and by hard work, it is just completed as the story ends. But one, The Big Six, is very different from the others because in it the group of children who are the main characters are unjustly accused of theft and vandalism and the whole neighborhood turns against them. They become pariahs and have to clear themselves and nail their accusers by a series of heroic efforts. The fact that there are actual villains to contend with, instead of just the forces of nature, makes this book outstanding among the others.
Shakespeare has an elegant and skillful touch in mingling an injustice theme with a comedy motif, as in The Merchant of Venice, where the very grim Shylock-Antonio legal case focused on the horrifying pound-of-flesh penalty is contrasted with the light-hearted nonsense over rings and caskets. The injustice is done, first to Antonio, then to Shylock, giving a deeper resonance to the whole. Similarly in Much Ado About Nothing, the absurd Beatrice Benedick story would hardly hold water on its own, if it were not counterpointed by Claudio’s totally unjust accusations against poor Hero and the (highly improbable) unmasking of his scheme by Dogberry & Co. (It really takes Shakespeare to get away with this plot.)
Injustice is of course the theme of many classic folktales, starting from Cinderella. My favorite is a Croation story, “Stribor’s Forest,” in which a poor old mother is abominably treated by her daughter-in-law, who is really a snake turned into a girl, and has a snake’s nature. She sets her mother-in-law impossible tasks, such as going to the forest for strawberries on a snowy winter’s day. The good old mother is helped with her tasks by a tribe of benevolent forest elves, who finally offer to rescue her from her plight by restoring her to her girlhood in a magically created village in the enchanted forest. But realizing that, if this happens, her son would no longer exist, she chooses to go back to her life of hardship. This unprecedented choice undoes all the magic, and the son’s wife becomes a snake again. This story, as well as having the classic folk-tale ingredients, is genuinely touching. Injustice has also formed the basis of many thriller and mystery stories, and can make the difference between a flat whodunit and an engrossing page-turner. Dorothy Sayers’s Strong Poison, for instance, has terrific tension because Harriet Vane, the central character, is standing trial for her lover’s murder. The jury can’t agree, and there is only one month before the retrial in which to find proof that Harriet didn’t commit the murder. The time element, and the fact that the reader is sure from the start that Harriet is innocent, make this one of Sayers’s best. Dick Francis, in his thriller Enquiry, uses a similar situation: His hero/narrator and the trainer he works for are barred from racing after being falsely accused of cheating in a race; owners are taking their horses away from the trainer (time element again), so there is only a limited period in which to prove that the accusation is false. Having the narrator as hero is an advantage here because he is able to tell the reader from the start that the charge is an unjust one.
I used the injustice theme myself in my Felix Brooke trilogy. Crossed wires seem to happen more in historical fiction than in contemporary work; perhaps because it is so much easier now to pick up the telephone and sort matters out. (As Stephen Leacock said, if only, when Othello had demanded, “Where is that handkerchief?,” Desdemona had the presence of mind to answer, “I sent it to the laundry, darling,” much trouble would have been saved.)
In my Felix Brooke stories I have the goodhearted but wild and impetuous hero run away from his uptight, strait-laced Spanish family because they are harsh with him, believing him to be illegitimate. When that situation is straightened out, he goes off to rescue the children of a man who is accused of being mad, and a traitor to his country. Felix very soon begins to realize that these are false accusations being circulated by the man’s malevolent wife. In fact, the situation is the exact reverse of what he has been told, but by the time Felix is aware of this, he is on top of a cliff in the Pyrenees with three children, one seriously ill and one killed by poison.
Reconciliation is another universal theme that operates equally well in juvenile and adult fiction–the slow (or it may be sudden) coming together of two characters who have been opposed, if not actual enemies, throughout the story.
Dumas uses it in The Three Musketeers. All through the story, a character called Rochefort has been opposing and hindering D’Artagnan at every turn. They are mostly prevented by circumstances from actually fighting; but on the very last page, the epilogue, when all has been tidied up and a great many people have died, Dumas nonchalantly mentions to the reader. “D’Artagnan fought three duels with Rochefort and wounded him three times.” D’Artagnan tells Rochefort, “If we have another fight, I shall probably kill you.” Rochefort replies, “In that case it would be better for us both to forgive and forget … upon which they shook hands, this time in friendship.”
In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens has a terrific cat-and-dog relationship between one of the heroines, spoiled little Bella Wilfer, and the hero, Rokesmith, whose real name is Harmon. He has been left a fortune on condition that he marry Bella, at that time unknow to him. Objecting to this arbitrary arrangement, Harmon contrives the pretense that he has been drowned, and presents himself to Bella merely as her family’s lodger, somebody’s unimportant secretary. Dickens has a lot of fun over this situation, as Bella first slights, teases, and spurns the humble Rokesmith, and then can’t help falling in love with him (as he has with her already) and finally agrees to marry him, still without knowing that he is the real heir. The final revelation is enough to make the modern reader squirm with embarrassment, but Victorian readers lapped it up.
Georgette Heyer used the theme in half a dozen of her novels: A hates B adapts well to a Regency setting. And so did Jane Austen in Pride & Prejudice. Of course the fact that the antipathy is on sexual attraction pushes the story up toward the adult market. Similarly, in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, until the last chapter Lucy thinks she can’t stand George; and the very same situation turns up in Anne of Green Gables, with Anne detesting the uppish, teasing Gilbert Blythe who puts her down at school. Hostilities crackle on briskly throughout the plot until Gilbert self-sacrificingly gives up a job so that Anne can have it, and the scene is set for romance to spring up between them.
It is much more entertaining for the writer–and the reader–to set the two main characters at loggerheads so they can display all their worst characteristics. In my school library, we used to have a wonderful weepie, The Flight of the Heron by D.K. Broster, about the Scottish clans rising against the English. The Scots hero mistakenly thinks that his English counterpart has betrayed him, and the misunderstanding is cleated up only at the very end when the dying Englishman, before he breathes his last, has just enough time to gasp out, “I always liked you!”
MUST adult and juvenile characters differ? Obviously, characters in adult fiction can be more complex, can be depicted at greater depth and length, while young readers want to get on with the plot; they are not in the market for deep motivation and analysis, but the type of character may be basically the same for both age groups. King Arthur and Sir Gawaine and Robin Hood, after all, began as heroes of adult fiction before they were adopted into the juvenile library. And an untidy, impatient problem-solver such as Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski is equally welcome in both.
Reviewing the theme of overlap from children’s to adult novels and vice versa, it struck me that I have a character who seems to have established himself with a foot in both camps. He is a somewhat inept, but intelligent and well-meaning British peer of the realm who wandered out of my last Jane Austen sequel, The Youngest Miss Ward, where, as Lord Camber, he goes off to found a Utopian community on the banks of the Susquehanna river. In Dangerous Games, my latest Dido Twite novel, as Lord Herondale, he is on a Pacific island searching for games to amuse the ailing King James III; and now he has turned up as the brother of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in yet another Austen spin-off. Vague, chatty, floundering, his heart in the right place and liable to cause his friends untold trouble, he is a kind of Sorceror’s Apprentice. I have no idea where he came from, he is like no one I know, but I think it highly probable that he will turn up again, no doubt where least expected, whether in a juvenile or an adult story, who can say? Writing is like that. It continually takes the writer by surprise.