Stories and Storytellers: the importance of stories

While tidying up some old files I came across a piece I had written for a guest blog spot (see note below) on the topic of stories. As it seemed to fit with the theme of my own blog, I offer a tweaked version here:

I have been thinking recently about stories, storytellers and the importance of stories to both children and adults alike. At present, these musings are rather random but I would like to turn them into something more substantial. I give you here some of my tangled thoughts in the hope that it might make them somewhat clearer to me….

Of interest to me is what makes a good story; which stories can be said to have stood the test of time and why this should be so. In addition, books that once fell out of fashion and that have since been rediscovered and reprinted. For example, Persephone Books now have a long list of fascinating reprints of once forgotten twentieth novels by women writers (I loved Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson).

Book cover of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day featuring two fashionable ladies

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Moreover, what about children’s stories? Before Christmas, I was pulling together ideas for an article on Christmas gifts. Having recently been to an entertaining reading by Frank Cottrell Boyce in the company of a very critical nine year old, I added his latest book Cosmic to my list. At the event, Boyce talked to his young audience about how stories are told, retold and then retold some more. Each time storytellers add new elements. He regaled the children with variations on the theme of finding treasure and the (often-fatal!) consequences. It is a simple enough plot, yet there is enormous potential for exploring a range of actions and emotions. Great comic material too as Boyce proves in his novel Millionaires. There is a good chance that at least some kids reading it will have caught the lifelong story bug

I was initially thinking about the written as opposed to the spoken story but many authors also can spin a good yarn if doing a live session. And in Ireland, where there is a fine tradition of oral story telling I have been to many sessions that can be enjoyed by all ages. Think of in particular, Niall de Burca, Eddie Lenihan and Jack Lynch who can hold audiences in the palms of their hands with their wonderful (and often very tall) tales.

Children’s writers do a fantastic job of creating an imaginary world but story telling can be just as important to adults too. One book in particular that started me thinking about the vital effect a storyteller can have is Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light. In this novel, based on real events Selim, enduring the horror of imprisonment in Tazmamart, a secret prison in Morocco, becomes a storyteller to his fellow prisoners. He has no books, nor paper and pen so he draws upon his memories to retell old tales and even movie plots to them.

Cover of This Blinding Absence of Light with a figure in desert landscape.

This Blinding Absence of Light

Telling stories is a means of assisting him (and them) to survive, to keep his brain working and to keep up morale amongst the prisoners. They are all in tiny individual cells and it is a way of communicating through the walls, darkness and fears that surround them. The book is a moving testimony to the power of the storyteller. Those are of course extreme circumstances. Even so, people have often used stories in extremis, to come to terms with, and to make sense of events beyond control. Sometimes even to find humour in an otherwise difficult situation.

Well, those are some of my musings….now I am off to curl up with a box of chocolates and a good story.

This piece dates from 2nd January 2011 and this is an edited version of a blog entry for Hand and Star (now apparently defunct but formerly edited by Tom Chivers)  

As a postscript to this piece, there is a connection with my previous piece on Georgette Heyer in that one of her novels Friday’s Child became a symbol of survival for a group of Romanian women political prisoners. One of the women told and retold the story from memory and later, after spending twelve years in prison was able to write and thank the author (in 1963)  from the safety of the United States.

Never underestimate the power of a good story or a great storyteller – if you have any particularly favourite stories that you would like to share, just drop a line in the comment box. I’d love to hear about them!



Georgette Heyer: Doyenne of Regency Romance

portrait of Georgette Heyer in evening dress

Georgette Heyer

For Christmas, I bought my mum the hard back copy of Jennifer Kloester’s Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, about one of my all time favourite writers. My cunning plan was (obviously) to read it myself too, but as this has proved tricky due to the two of us not living in the same country, I have had to resort to borrowing a copy from the library. I am now on my third renewal and not quite finished reading it yet as various other books have intervened. I may actually buy myself a copy since it is an excellent addition to my stash of literary biographies. I could see Georgette nestling in nicely next to Daphne; though I am not sure what she would have made of Dolly Wilde.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my journey through Georgette Heyer’s extensive output and I feel inspired to do much re-reading. However, I will have to make do with the sole Heyer title residing on the landing bookshelves. This is an Orange Penguin edition of The Devil’s Cub (1954, first published in 1932). The original price of this volume was 2/6 though I see from the inside cover that I paid £1.50 for it in 2001. It is still in good condition so it was money well spent despite the inflationary price.

The Devil’s Cub is a title that I have read and then re-read many times. It is possibly my favourite Heyer, though in truth it would be tricky to decide which of her forty-six titles is my favourite. I think I have read most of her books, barring only a couple of her contemporary novels that Heyer suppressed and that I have not yet managed to locate. I have a feeling that either I’ll need to be very lucky or very wealthy to get hold of them.

I wrote the short piece below about The Devil’s Cub a couple of years ago (I think) when I was inspired by reading a piece by journalist Rachel Cooke. Many people still tend to dismiss Georgette Heyer as just another romantic novelist without bothering to find out anything about her work. Some people even speak of her in the same breath as Barbara Cartland which is mystifying to a Heyer fan like me. Heyer’s heroines had much more character and courage than any of Cartland’s creations. And of course, a Heyer heroine had a sense of humour!

Orange Penguin book jacket

Orange Penguin Edition



The Devil’s Cub Georgette Heyer

‘If you know, you know. If you don’t, you should stop being so stuck up, and read her, pronto’. This was journalist Rachel Cooke outing herself as a Heyer fan. It is, apparently not the done thing to admit a liking for Heyer’s books. I am however, willing to stand up and be counted as a fan alongside Cooke.

I first read The Devil’s Cub as a teenager and in retrospect, I can see that the ‘dark and extremely handsome’ hero appealed. However, in the end it was the wit, madcap adventures and sheer escapist fun that had me hooked on Heyer. The giggle out loud lines had as much (if not more) staying power than the romance. A lesson for life really. From Heyer I gained a lifelong love of comic fiction.

I also admired her heroines. Never passive, they were intelligent, capable, and calm in a crisis and certainly did not faint at the sight of blood. In this novel, a case of mistaken identity results in Mary Challoner being abducted by Lord Vidal for strictly dishonourable purposes. In the ensuing action, Miss Challoner shoots Vidal to thwart his intentions and then calmly dresses his wound. Next morning she makes him eat a nourishing gruel for breakfast.

‘I observe that the sight of blood don’t turn you queasy.’

‘I am not such a fool, sir’ Miss Challoner began to roll up his sleeve. ‘I fear the lace is ruined my lord. Am I hurting you?’

‘Not at all,’ said Vidal politely.

Heyer’s female protagonists were the equal of any man and commanded respect. Woe betides the man who underestimated them. It was about woman, not girl power and it was not necessarily the best-looking woman who won the beau. Of course, the novel ends happily but I think the great thing is that the story ends with a riotously comic scene and not a clichéd clinch. I would ove to be able to write comedy as well as Georgette Heyer could. It is a great gift. In addition, her elegant and precise use of language is something to which I have always aspired. Her grasp of historical details and Regency slang were second to none. She always made it look so easy.

Are there any more fans out there? Shout out if you’re a Heyer lover….

UPDATE – I’ve just discovered that the paperback edition of Jennifer Koestler’s book (published by Cornerstone) is due to be released on 20 June 2013. I may just treat myself!