SCOTT CORBETT is a native Missourian who is now leaching English in Providence‚ Rhode Island. His most recent, book, TREE HOUSE ISLAND, was published last winter under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint.
Much as I should like to be a writer of high tragedy, or even some fairly low tragedy, my search for suitable characters has never been a fruitful one. Life has not seen fit to put me in touch with any such convenient perishers as abound in the works of Hardy, Dickens, Eliot, and so many others.
Take Maggie and Tom in The Mill on the Floss. If they were my characters, you can bet they would never be swept away by any flood. It would be my luck that Maggie had won her senior lifesaving badge just the week before. I would be stuck with the pair of them, wet but healthy, for another hundred pages.
Put Anna Karenina in my book, and the train would be late. By the time it finally arrived, Anna would have thought better of the whole business and gone home, and there I would be — a novelist with his ending shot.
A fellow like Dickens had all the luck. He made a fortune on the death of Little Nell. The kid lingered on and on through installment after installment while all England sat anxiously by her bedside.
Give me Little Nell, and some cursed wonder drug would have her sitting up in a week’s time and eating like a horse. Ten to one I would lose money on her.
For that matter, I’ll bet I would get the same breaks with La Dame aux Camélias. By the time the elder Germont arrived at her bedside in my version, the lovely courtesan would be pulling through nicely and planning her trousseau — and think how embarrassing that would actually have been for everybody.
The chap I really envy, though, is Thomas Hardy. Of course, he had Egdon Heath to work with, and that is a big advantage right there. (No, no, Egdon Heath is not a character, you ignoramus; it’s a place, and about the grimmest, gloomiest place you ever saw.)
When Hardy did not have a violent storm on tap (which was seldom), he could produce a heat wave harsh enough to fell an elderly woman like Mrs. Yeobright, who was perhaps a bit plump to be walking such distances across the heath on a hot day. Besides that, Hardy could count on the cooperation of the local adders, small well-trained serpents which were ever ready to bite old ladies on cue.
Heaven knows, I have never been fortunate enough to meet any characters with names like Clym Yeobright, Eustacia Vye‚ and Wildeve in the first place, but even if I had, you can be sure I would never manage to wrap up The Return of the Native neatly on page 441 by drowning the latter two in Shadwater Weir during a torrential downpour. My Eustacia would have taken one look out the window that night and muttered, “If Wildeve thinks that I’m going out in weather like this, he’s crazy.”
The next day would have turned out nice and clear, and then Eustacia and Wildeve would have taken oil and gone to Canada to live happily in sin ever after. (They would have been known there as that wellto-do young couple who never had much to say about their previous life in England.)
My misfortune has been that all the characters I have been able to lay my pen to have had a nasty streak of common sense in them. Nothing spoils a good tragic situation faster.
Let us turn to poetry for a moment. With me, even a poem based on an actual historical incident would go awry. It’s a good thing Mrs. Hemans wrote “Casabianca,” because I would have finished it off in a single stanza:
Whence ah but he had fled;
“Why stay and get it in the neck?”
Cried he, and jumped instead.
In my hands, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” would inevitably have reached this somewhat less than stirring conclusion:
The wily colonel thunder’d,
As prudently out of the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
My Tarquin would approach with ravishing strides the tent of Lucrece, only to find she was not in. (Having noted that gleam in his eye, she would have slipped away to her aunt’s.) And so it goes. Well, I could do without the poet’s laurels, if only I could write the novels, but I fear it is not to be. My characters are always hopelessly addicted to saving their own skins. This is the principal reason — in fact, the only reason. I think we may safely say why I have never become a great tragic novelist.