What drives authors to engage with a new media to tell their stories?
I start from the position of a publishing historian researching the writing and publishing of stories and reveal the processes of media acculturalisation as authors-turned-storytellers learned the techniques of media specificity. I have followed the path of Elinor Glyn and then four further connected writers who took this route: Clemence Dane, G.B. Stern, A.E.W. Mason and Hugh Walpole, although there are many others whose work could be explored in the same way: Philip MacDonald, Edgar Wallace for example while authors H.G. Wells, J.B. Priestley, Hall Caine and Elinor Glyn have been the subject of research in their relationship with film and the theatre by myself and others. I have chosen to research this from the archive drawing out the textual evidence for the professional relationships, financial agreements and script decisions and combining this with a reading of the fiction and films.
As Michel Foucault points out the combination of archaeological and genealogical epistemology provides a way of mapping the permutations of stories and tracing their descent through subsequent generations. Yet within this phenomenological approach it is clear that stories become more powerful as they resonate through the number of retellings. In my work on Glyn I found that it was helpful to visualise the publishing cycle in multi-media publication as connected cogwheels with revolving mutations of the story-text powered by the continued interest of the audience. Such an image includes cases where the story and characters are strong and in demand and so are handed on from author to writer, gaining a currency of their own.
The time is the future when Britain has lost the war in Europe. Old George the gardener has made a scarecrow to frighten away the crows from the kitchen garden where the English widow and her daughter Elly live. The young girl digs up a cup handle and a bryony root and places them both in the folds of his clothing. The magic of the mandrake root awakens the scarecrow to life and now he listens as the guests discuss the cessation of war. We become a witness to his emerging consciousness.
Gradually the scarecrow’s awareness spreads, he feels his legs and works to release himself from the ground. Once freed, he walks into the house where he learns to communicate by mimicking the words and actions of another. He wanders off through a churchyard and in a scene of magical realism is able to absorb the words of the dead as they express their anguish at their fate and from this he constructs a distorted history of oppressed England.
Clemence Dane's The Arrogant History of While Ben
This novel, written in haste on the eve of war, retells the rise of fascism. Through an easy acquiescence to their own sentiments echoed in the speeches of White Ben, people begin to follow him believing his ‘fake news’. They turn on the crows he so hates – the immigrants foraging in his land and those that wear black and so look like crows. It’s a clever depiction of how a disgruntled people can be roused to rebellion and acts of inhumanity by the distorted words of a leader.
The Arrogant History of While Ben (London: Heinemann 1939)
The front cover photo was of a scarecrow made by the author