Sunday, 1 June 2014

Analysing The Lord of Feathers

Recently I updated the freebie story on my website.  It's traditionally been a slight source of woe, in that I obviously wanted something there that didn't make me look rubbish, but it seemed like cheating to use a story already available somewhere else and I didn't want to put anything up that might potentially make me money either because, hey, I need money.  As a compromise I've finally settled on a story called The Lord of Feathers, which though old, was one of the first pieces where I really felt like I'd got things more right than wrong.  It originally appeared in the now-defunct Reflection's Edge, although the version I've put up has been heavily edited (and hopefully improved) from that one.  

What I couldn't edit, however, was the heart of the thing - and coming back to it, I couldn't but wonder what had been going on in my head as I wrote it all those many years ago.*  Now traditionally I don't talk too much here about what my work is about, perhaps because traditionally I've never been entirely sure myself.  But this being a special occasion, and a story I'm so divorced from in time that I probably don't understand it much better than anyone else, I thought I might bend that rule a little.  In fact, what I thought we could do, in a radical departure from usual Writing on the Moon service, is that you go away and read The Lord of Feathers and then come back here and I'll try and make some sense out of it for you.  

Wild, huh?  It's like interactive blogging or something.  In fact, to make it that bit more creepy, why not pretend I'm hiding in your closet while we do this?  Hell yeah!  Okay, here goes...

 Well my first thought - and I'm not sure I should be admitting this - was that, holy crap, that's a bit misogynistic.  Female protagonist acts like an idiot for five thousand words and then gets killed for it.  That's just harsh.

But let's not jump to conclusions here, especially not ones that make me look really bad.  Because the second thing that strikes me is that this is very clearly a love story - as in a story about love, rather than the more traditional story in which two people meet and fall head over heels for each other, because clearly, that doesn't happen at all.**  And thinking back to the time when I wrote it, The Lord of Feathers strikes me as a particularly bitter, angsty take on love: you give up everything for someone, try your best to please them and what happens?  You end up with your heart ripped out in the snow.

So does that make it not sexist?  I'm not entirely sure.  I do find myself wondering, though - and this is a test I often set myself these days - what would happen if the gender roles were reversed.  Could it still function?  My own feeling is that it could, and I have some evidence for this: I actually wrote something a lot like that story.  Like I said, The Lord of Feathers was one of the first things I wrote that seemed somewhat successful, and for a while I thought about spinning it off into a book of connecting tales.  One of those, which I actually finished, featured the Lord of Seven Hills - briefly alluded to at the beginning of The Lord of Feathers - and ran in parallel, telling a similar (and equally cynical!) tale.

The thing is, Isabella's behaviour is stupid, there's no getting around that, but I think that it's at least stupid in a way that's in keeping with her character and background.  She starts out, after all, as a spoiled teenager, and her first act is to run away from home.  And digging a little deeper, it occurs to me that The Lord of Feathers is also - maybe even more so - about the trauma of stepping out of childhood into adulthood: about going away and finding a job and making your own decisions and paying the consequences, however terrible they may be.  (By this view, Isabella's parents curious willingness to let her go seems fractionally more reasonable.)

One last thought, and this is something I do vaguely remember thinking about when I wrote The Lord of Feathers: it's also very much a story about subjectivity.  Isabella's great failing is not so much that she behaves like a dumb, overprivileged teenager but that she assumes everyone else sees the world the way she does.  The Lord of Feathers must love her because she loves him; and why wouldn't Madeleine want to stay and live in crushing poverty just because Isabella thinks it's a good idea?  In this sense, the Isabella we end with is perhaps more sympathetic than the one we began with.  She's learned that love has to cut both ways, what it means to be an adult and that other people see the world in vastly different ways to herself.

If it's a shame that the price of all that knowledge is a horrible death then all I can say is, it took me a long time to realise that there are ways to end your story that aren't killing the protagonist.


So hey, that's my take.  But if anyone has another then I'd be intrigued to hear it; it's perfectly possible you understood The Lord of Feathers a whole lot better than I did.  Comments particularly welcome on this one...

* I feel like I'm making myself seem old now.  Look, it wasn't that long ago.  Put it this way, we still had mobile phones, and not those crazy eighties brick things either.

** Though there's a part of me that thinks that by the end, in his crazy psycho werewolf way, the Lord of Feathers is at least trying.

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