The Short Story Project ~ The Sacristan of St Botolph

IMG_0046I’m willing to lay a small wager that you all thought I’d forgotten about The Short Story Project, but not a bit of it.  I simply had to make my way first through a number of books that I’d promised to post reviews for on specific dates.  In future such promises will be contingent on it being possible to fit the books in around more pressing and more interesting concerns.

As I said in my last post on the subject, I’m starting out with A S Byatt’s edited collection of English Short Stories for OUP.  This proved to be a felicitous choice because independently a friend had selected it to use as a set text for a new module she is teaching this year on short fiction, so we will be able to compare notes as we go.  The collection is arranged chronologically consequently that is going to be one of the first factors I shall be taking into account when I have enough data to begin drawing some conclusions.

Having said all that, chronologically speaking, I got off to a bad start with the initial story which is credited to a William Gilbert who lived from 1540 to 1603.  This would make the text something of an anomaly as all the other stories are from the nineteenth or twentieth centuries but, when I read it, I was quite willing to think that it was from the Early Modern period because the tale, entitled The Sacristan of St Botolph, would fit in well to an age in which the conduct of churchmen was constantly coming under close scrutiny from one side of the religious divide or the other.  However, thinking it would be useful to know something of the particular religious stance of the author before setting out on an analysis I discovered an editing error.  Yes, there was a William Gilbert with roughly those dates (1544 – 1603) and he wrote – a lot, but not short stories.  In fact he was a scientist and is known as the father of electricity. The William Gilbert who should have been cited was very definitely a nineteenth century man (1804 – 1890) and the story anthologised dates from 1866.  While this doesn’t change the results of my analysis it does throw an interesting light on what I found.

The Sacristan of St Botolph is the story of Geoffrey Cole, the eponymous churchman.  Mr Cole is not a man whose acquaintance I am in a hurry to make:

Although something of a miser, intensely selfish, and most uncharitable, both in the matter of giving alms, and in his feeling towards his neighbours, he was extremely punctilious in all the external forms and ceremonies of the Church, and he flattered himself he was not only very religious, but even a model of piety.  The more he studied the subject, the more certain of his blissful state he became, till at last he believed himself to be so good that the saints alone were his equals.

You get the picture.

Now, the sacristan has a bit of a penchant for widows and it is to one of these that he makes the claim that he would like to be subjected to the same temptations as was St Anthony to see if he could resist them.  Well, we all know, don’t we, that you should be careful what you wish for.  Arriving home that night he requested a neighbour’s wife to light his lamp and his fire for him (I have other suggestions as to what she should have done with whatever combustable she used!) ate a hearty meal and retired to bed.  You’ve probably worked out what happens next.

The sacristan is visited by an imp.  What is more the imp is accompanied by a very large, very stubborn and very truculent pig and we have the archetypal three occasions on which the self-aggrandising Mr Cole is forced to suffer total humiliation despite his best efforts to maintain the standards of living and personal dignity to which he has become accustomed.  The last of these three episodes differs from the other two in as much as a completely new set of characters are introduced and the sacristan is surrounded by a group of musicians and dancers all of the most fantastic and many even of the most horrible shapes.  He is led into what I thought was going to be a dance of death.

The sacristan now danced with all his might, his grotesque figure flying about in all directions, while he performed the most eccentric steps.  He became more and more excited with the scene, and danced with still greater vigour.

However, suddenly everything vanishes and Mr Cole, left stranded, on a dark heath in the pouring rain, has a moment of enlightenment and resolves henceforth to be a better human being, becoming

a good charitable man, doing his duty in the church, giving alms of all he had to the poor, and contend with being thought no better than his neighbours.

No, I didn’t believe it either.

But, what you really want to know is how the story stacked up in respect of its narrative structure.  Well, this text certainly is a full story in as much as it has all the elements I outlined when I was discussing The Three Little Pigs (all, of course, far more civilised than the one the sacristan encounters). Present are the exposition, inciting moment, igniting moment, development, climax, dénouement and resolution.   So, as far as my theory goes, this is a counter example.  However, it isn’t a very satisfactory story, especially in terms of its beginning and its end, which has set me off wondering if I shan’t find myself taking into account factors other than the grammatical narrative structure. Of course, this kind of thing always happens once you start looking at real data.  It’s where the fun of research lies.

The problem at the beginning seems to stem from the fact that the inciting moment, that is the event that kicks off the event line, comes before the exposition.  In a full length novel that is not that unusual, but the difficulty here is that the action that gives the initial thrust to the story is the repeated absence of one Master Walter de Courcey from church and as his name is the first thing the reader mets in the text it sets up the expectation that the narrative is going to be about him.  We never met him again.

At the end the difficulty comes about for two reasons. In her introduction to the volume Byatt comments on this text that the end is not fully achieved, and that is something of an understatement.  We are simply told

The spell under which he had been labouring for some days past was broken, and he found he had been making a great fool of himself.

You might be excused for thinking that this is the nineteenth century equivalent of and then I woke up and it was all a dream.

This is then compounded by the fact that the sacristan experiences a complete change of heart in the space of half a dozen lines and becomes a reformed character.  It simply isn’t believable.

I suspect that there is something contextual going on here and that if I had read this in 1866 when it was first published I would have responded to it in a very different way.  Reading it for the first time in 2014, however, I find myself thinking that in organisational terms there is a similar problem at the end to that at the beginning and that those problems lie not in the grammatical structure but in the referential organisation.  In both cases there is a disjunct where a character is concerned.  In the first instance because the elusive Master de Courcey is given thematic prominence we are led to expect, inaccurately, that he is going to be of some importance to the story.  In the second everything that we have been told of the sacristan’s character is suddenly reversed and we seem almost to be reading about a different man.  So, I have been digging about in my files this afternoon to find my copies of the papers of Tom Trabasso, who did a lot of work on the ways in which different parts of stories relate to each other.  It may be that this text is a one off where this type of issue is concerned, but just in case it isn’t I want to be prepared.

The Short Story Project ~ The Prologue

Image 1First and foremost, I have to say a very real thank you to those who commented on my last post and were so enthusiastic about the idea of the Short Story Project. I have been giving it a lot of thought over the intervening few days and I hope that I will be ready to start by the end of the week.

Many of the comments you made were really useful in helping me to formulate my ideas in greater detail. For instance, my list of possible variables grew exponentially.  I can now see that at some point I shall have to consider such differences as nationality, gender and possibly sexuality of the author, the date when the story was written and the genre of which it is an example, whether it was written in English or if I am reading a translation and the length of the text.

However, initially, I’m not going to take any of those factors into account for two reasons.  First, until I’ve got some specific results there is no point in trying to generalise out.  To start with, I simply need to begin to explore some stories and gradually build up a data set.  I can’t begin to look for patterns until I have enough material for patterns to become apparent.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I have to see whether or not the method of analysis I use for complete stories will prove equally as effective a tool when applied to fragments of stories.  There can’t be anything instinctive about this. My results have to be replicable by anyone else carrying out the same process.  I have to be able to cite grammatical evidence for my decisions.  In one sense, then, it doesn’t matter where I start because if my methodology isn’t generally applicable it isn’t going to be any use.

So, following up Ian’s advice about checking out the various Penguin and Oxford anthologies I’ve ordered a copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by A S Byatt on the grounds that at least I can trust her to have selected stories that will be worth reading.  In fact, looking at the Table of Content I can see that this will give me works from a wide range of dates and, eventually, from authors of both genders, but as I say, initially that isn’t going to be important.  As soon as that arrives I can get down to work.

In the meantime, I am trying to master the art of keeping a spreadsheet on my computer.  If you should see any smoke rising into the skies from the general direction of the English West Midlands then you will know what it is!