The Fate of Fenella, by Helen Mathers and 23 Others.

Posted: May 11, 2009 in adult literature, more than four narratives, multiple authors

Mathers, Helen et al.  The Fate of Fenella.  (1892) Kansas City: Valancourt, 2008.

I’ve included this novel in my alternating narrative project, not because it is multi-focalized, but because it has multiple authors–24 of them (and thus offers an adult comparison with a YA novel like Click).  It was a project initiated by a publisher, who invited many popular writers of the day each to contribute a chapter to an ongoing story, which was then published in a serial form in a magazine called The Gentlewoman in 1892.  The writers included some still very famous ones, like Arthur Conan Doyle and Bran Stoker (author of Dracula), some who were huge bestsellers in their time (Helen Mathers, Florence Marryat), and some less widely known or read. (including F. Anstey, who wrote the children’s novel Vice Versa, basis of so many Freaky Fridays and such.)

It’s not exactly clear how they did the writing, but they seem to have written the chapters in turn without any advance planning of how the plot would develop, etc.  Thus, each writer would get what had been done so far and add a chapter.

The plot is about an unhappy couple, murder while sleepwalking, kidnapping, vile villainesses, and so on–sort of condensed cream of melodrama.   There’s a real sense of each writer trying to top the others–be even more excessive, more inventive in ways of torturing the heroine.  Indeed, the major interest here for me is how this sort of writing quickly turns a novel into a game.  The writers seem to be determined to end their chapters with the characters in the midst of impossible dilemmas, or in farflung parts of the globe.  the next writer then has to figure out how to get them back together again so that something interesting can happen before the next chapter comes to an end, again at a place which leaves the next writer with an apparently insoluble problem,  The plot then has many outrageous twists and turns, and is totally and completely illogical, and involves an immense amount of hastily skimmed over travel.   One might say the same of the multi-authored YA Click, actually, except that there the basic device of the novels logically allows for a much wider scope in terms of story content, location, etc.

While multi-authored, the novel tends to be traditional writing of its time.  Thus, it does switch from focalizer to focalizer, but in the context of a fairly omniscient narrator who makes the switches within the course of an ongoing narrative.  Unlike more contemporary alternating narrations, then, it tends to bury or conceal the switches in point of view, rather than putting them front and centre, as so many YA novels do when they actually name alternating chapters with the names of the characters whose point of view they present.   as a result, unlike those YA novels, writing of this sort doesn’t tend to make its alternating focalizations thematic–it doesn’t necessarily contribute to or offer a way of understanding what the book is about, as it odes in, say, novels by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville or other YA pairs.

While the narrative techniques are more or less stable throughout, the tone changes drastically from chapter to chapter.   Some are more fraught and fervent than others.  And you can tell that some writers are having a really good time doing this–playing the game–and others are just phoning it in.

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