• The Red Sleeve: An Arthurian Romance

    My latest novel, The Red Sleeve, is a reworking of the Maid of Astolat  episode from Malory's 'Morte D'Artur'; a medieval romance of unrequited love which obsessed the Victorian psyche; most notably in Tennyson's Lady of Shalott and the Pre-Raphaelite influenced paintings of artists such as Waterhouse.  

    My own take on the story, predicated on a quest for the origins of the romance hero, re-adapts the dynamics of the tale, positioning Launcelot, the original knight in shining armour, as the narrative focaliser.  Malory's fiction, with its teleological thrust, is less concerned with what a character thinks and feels than what she/he does.  Thus the conflict between Launcelot's public role as the queen's champion and his transgressive private persona as her lover is played out in the political arena, eschewing exploration of the inner demons of desire.

    It's these inner demons which fascinated me. Like so many Romance heroes, Launcelot is a flawed hero. Betraying Arthur, his closest friend and liege lord, not only marks him as a traitor, but inevitably opens up a gap in Malory's original narrative in which to allow for the play of guilt.  And even in his treachery Launcelot is impelled by a code of chivalry demanding fidelity and service to the beloved.  Thus his public disavowals of any adulterous relations between himself and the queen are primarily to protect her reputation.  So in a sense he is a liar and a cheat in the service of a noble cause; that of saving the queen from slander.  But we mustn't forget that he is also a hero in the more traditional sense of valour;  literally riding to the rescue to save Guenevere's  life when she is finally condemnned for breaking her marriage vows to the king. 

    And yet ...

    In the end we're not quite convinced either by Launcelot's protestations of fidelity to the queen, or the motivations behind his martial role as her champion.   Always ready to fall into all the traps beauty sets, throughout the 'Morte D'Artur' Launcelot finds himself bedding other women.  And his excuses?  Those of any cheap Saturday night  seducer:  The woman trapped him.  How?  Why, with a love potion ... translate that for booze or drugs if you want the contemporary version!

    And isn't our hero always a little too ready to show off his prowess!  Even slaying close friends whom he apparently fails to recognise in the fury of battle.  Adding the sin of pride to his catalogue of venalities.

    Finally, Malory too finds the whole chivalrous knight template wanting.  It's Galahad, our hero's son, who's allowed to achieve the glory of the Grail.  And for all his exertions, Launcelot doesn't get the girl;  ending his mortal life a hermit, complete with ashes and sackcloth, not a glint of armour shining.

  • Lady Macbeth's Tale

    Lady Macbeth’s rapid trajectory from dominatrix to hysteric poses the question: just what was her problem? Her hounding of her husband to commit murder appears to be predicated on skewed notions of masculinity. Thus she taunts Macbeth to prove he is a man through an act of regicide. In fact, her greatest vitriol is reserved for what she perceives as her husband’s lack of manliness. But why is she so consumed with scorn when Macbeth hesitates to murder their kinsman and guest, King Duncan? Of course, Shakespeare leaves us in no doubt as to her ambition. But surely her demasculating jibes have a far murkier motivation? However, the swift pace of the play means that the ‘back story’ of the main characters happens offstage. And we are left to hazard breathless guesses at the sexual dynamics of their marriage. Intrigued by what Shakespeare left out – the source of Lady Macbeth’s personal demons – I followed my own quest to find the answer in writing Lady Macbeth’s Tale. Right from the start, I sensed that those vituperative interrogations of her husband’s masculinity could only have sprung from a primal sense of disappointment. Disappointment in men! And it is this profound rage against the first man in her life who had let her down which drives Lady M, not that much vaunted ambition. A disappointed daddy’s girl! Looking to the one man who could save her from the turmoil of eleventh century power politics, in which she finds herself a pawn, she discovers only weakness. Her royal father abandons her to fate in a warring kingdom. Yet still she hasn’t learned the lesson that a man can’t save her. And so like many a heroine – or should I say anti-heroine? – who would follow her over the next five hundred years of so of fiction, Lady Macbeth’s problem was that all along she longed for a hero – not a husband! 

  • Porphyria's Lover

    Browning’s perverse meditation on sexual desire sees Thanatos triumph over Eros. Or does it? As the febrile narrator of Porphyria’s Lover strangles his lover with her own long hair, in the ultimate act of possession, he must confront the irony of having lost the object of his desire at the very moment of fulfilment. Because his sexual mastery of his lover means her erasure. And of course, pre-Freud, Browning intimates that desire itself is nothing more nor less than a taunting demon. One of those hounds of hell leading lovers unwittingly towards a deep damnation. Or as Browning puts it more succinctly elsewhere ‘ … a man’s reach must exceed his grasp …’ And that grasp – reaching for nothing more nor less than the ghosts of Freud’s family romance – is doomed to clutch at thin air. What desire can never know, is that it seeks a spectre. So the necrophiliac narrator of Browning’s poem, having eliminated the object of desire, will be doomed to reincarnate her in yet another elusive love object. And as God remains silent in the face of murder itself within the poem, we can be sure that eros, erotic adventure, will urge the narrator on to enact yet further scenarios of sexual possession. In other words, desire never dies. It was this ultimate irony at the heart of Browning’s poem which led me to explore the notion of desire always being in excess of the object of its attentions. Of desire’s deathlessness. I wanted to literalise those ghosts of family romance. So I chose the setting of a spiritualist bordello for my novel inspired by Browning’s Poem. My novel, Porphyria’s Lover, originally published by Simon and Schuster, sees Gabriel Feaver: actor, seducer and master of ceremonies at The Resurrectionist Club, join in an uncanny alliance with whore, Kathleen Mangan, to take on the worlds of Victorian sexuality and spirituality, in a bid to make their fortunes. But they soon find that faking love and disinterring dead passions, has haunting consequences they could never have imagined …