Author Sebastian Faulks gets to the heart of the British novel through its characters in a new four-part series for BBC Two.
Faulks On Fiction explores the heroes, lovers, snobs and villains in classics including Robinson Crusoe, 1984, Brick Lane, Emma and The End Of The Affair.
“In recent years people talking about novels have focused on their authors,” says Sebastian. “I’d like to rectify this. To me, the only people who matter are the characters; the heroes, lovers, snobs and villains, people whose inner lives we get to know so well that they’re more familiar to us than our own families and friends – so much so that it’s in the power of their experiences that we see our own lives in a new light.”
The series, written and presented by Sebastian, tells the story of how the British novel made us who we are and features characters including Fagin from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Mr Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, Chanu from Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Jim Dixon from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.
In programme one, The Hero, Sebastian explores the characters readers root for in a novel, from heroes like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to more unconventional characters like the immoral Becky Sharp in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and John Self in Martin Amis’s Money.
Authors and writers interviewed by Sebastian in programme one include Simon Armitage, Martin Amis, Ruth Rendell and Tim Lott.
The characters featured are:
The British novel’s first hero was Robinson Crusoe in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). He is an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances and what makes him a hero is his ability to survive alone for over 25 years on an island.
The History Of Tom Jones – A Foundling (1749) by Henry Fielding is the story of a hero trying to make his way in a chaotic world. He is a hero because of the way his good-hearted nature exposes the hypocrisy of those around him.
In Vanity Fair (1847) by William Makepeace Thackeray, Becky Sharp is a woman who has charm, sex appeal and immense cunning and she uses these to get the things she doesn’t have – position and money. Sebastian argues that the standards we apply to people in books are different to those in real life, and that we are rooting for Becky for the purity of her ambition.
Arthur Conan Doyle drew a picture of London where crime pervaded the streets in his novel Sherlock Holmes (1887-1927). But the character of Holmes understood the dark side of life as well as any criminal and had the resources – both physical and intellectual – to combat crime.
Winston, in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), looks at first glance more like a victim than a hero. What makes him heroic is that he takes on Big Brother even though he doesn’t stand a chance against him.
Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim (1954), by Kingsley Amis, feels imprisoned by his dull job as a university lecturer and the need to conceal his true feelings if he is to survive. He uses humour to escape from the claustrophobia of provincial life and ultimately triumphs when he says what he thinks. For Sebastian, Jim Dixon was the original “angry young man” who spawned hundreds of imitators.
Martin Amis, Kingsley’s son, created a new kind of hero in the novel Money (1984). John Self, a small-time commercials director who tries to make it big in New York, is an obnoxious, gluttonous, misogynistic, lout. Sebastian argues that it’s John Self’s language which makes the reader take his side.
Interview with Sebastian Faulks
How long did it take you to read all the books for the series?
There are 28 books, though they include two trilogies and Clarissa, which is as long as five books. I also read four volumes of Holmes and at least three Jeeves novels. I read eight Bond novels the previous year. And I also read some we did not use – so, well over 60 books.
Of the 28 characters in the series I read 23 books before but I re-read all of those. I suppose the reading took about four or five months.
Did the locations you visited help bring the books to life?
Very much so. Whether it was Dorset for Tess, Shimla for Merrick or Manhattan for John Self – the actual places in the novels – or whether it was just a well-chosen location such as Arundel Castle for Steerpike, which helps the pictures live.
Which author from the past would you most like to meet?
Dickens – my admiration for him is boundless. Though I would be curious to see what manner of person Jane Austen was.
If you could be any character from any book for one day only who would it be, and why?
Do you mean from characters in the series? If so, Tom Jones, probably, though Connie Chatterley has her moments.
Did you learn anything new during the course of filming?
Most of the books were re-reads for me, and I learned something about all of them. I saw them differently from the way I saw them aged 18 or 20.
Do characters from books influence the way in which you write and are there any characters and books in particular which have been a big influence on your work?
I absorbed a lot from studying how different writers put their characters across. I suppose DH Lawrence, Henry Green and Tolstoy are the people I really studied closely in this way. And most of what I know about thought, emotion and the inner life is derived from fictional characters.
Do you have another novel in the pipeline?
I am creeping up on something and hoping it doesn’t yet know I’ve sort of started until I’ve got 25,000 words down and by then it won’t be able to escape.
Which book do you wish you had written?
I don’t. You only want to do what you can with the cards available. If it was revealed to me that, without knowing it, I had written Ulysses or The Da Vinci Code it wouldn’t mean anything because one doesn’t write for the fame of the former or the sales of the latter, but only for the joy of wrestling the thin stuff of reality into something more interesting by using the resources inside your head. It’s the process that counts.
Of the books in the series, I suppose Emma and Great Expectations are the most flawless. But The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie and Money are each in different ways a tour de force.
Who are your top three characters of all time and can you give us a sentence about each one?
Joe Gargery in Great Expectations – he is a kind, slow-witted man whose goodness is finally rewarded when he marries the village schoolmistress, Biddy. He acts as a touchstone for Pip throughout the book. It is by steady light of Joe’s kindness that Pip’s attempts at self-improvement are illuminated. But he is somehow not sentimentalised – he remains solid and credible.
Madame de Rênal in Stendhal’s Le Rouge Et Le Noir is a pious and unhappily married woman in provincial town in eastern France who is brought gloriously to life by the amorous attentions of Julien Sorel, a 19-year-old woodcutter’s son. Madame de Rênal mixes lust and shame in a powerfully erotic way. When we think she has disappeared from the story, she dramatically re-enters. Julien tries to kill her… but, well, find out for yourself.
Mickey Sabbath is the main character of Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, an out-of-work puppeteer who has devoted his life to chasing women. It is not a question of ‘liking’ Sabbath, more of looking aghast at the power of the life-force that animates him. I sometimes wonder how he would have got on with Madame de Rênal.