Sunday, July 29, 2007

Rosy Thornton - More Than Love Letters

Rosy Thornton's More Than Love Letters isn't exactly a typical romance, either in form or in content, though it does have "a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending" (Romance Writers of America's definition of a romance novel). Rosy herself describes it as "romantic comedy" but as the reviewer at Trashionista observed, it "manages to balance serious issues with being the funniest book I’ve read for a while". The Amazon reviews highlight the ways in which the novel combines comedy and tragedy, multiple perspectives (from characters who span the generations) and
was completely unlike any other 'chick lit' I have ever read, by turns satirical yet warm-hearted, serious and also farcical in the best and original sense of the word. The central story focuses on the unlikely, yet touching, romance between an MP [Member of Parliament] and a young woman called Margaret. The story also tackles issues, great and small, from homelessness and asylum seekers to dog fouling and unfair taxes. (Liz)
Over at AAR there's a thread about cultural differences, in which EllenB asked whether "romances accurately reflect the culture they're set in": this is a novel which felt very distinctively and realistically British to me. I also wrote recently about what readers bring to a novel and I was reminded of this when reading the reviews because although Margaret and her political activities seemed relatively normal to me, one reviewer felt that "I loved the heroine, Margaret, from the very beginning and although she might seem slightly bonkers, her passion and enthusiasm make her totally loveable". As a 24-year-old who regularly contacts her MP to raise issues with him she is a little unusual: according to a recent GfK NOP survey, "Only 11 per cent of 16-24 year olds have contacted their MP about an issue that concerns them. By contrast a third of 45-54 year olds (33 per cent) have contacted theirs". Climate change, however, one of the issues raised by Margaret, is an issue which concerns the vast majority of her age-group: "Over two thirds of the adult population (69 %), and three quarters (75 %) of 16-24 year olds think a climate law should be introduced that requires UK carbon dioxide emissions to be cut every year". She also campaigns on some very local issues (e.g. dog fouling in a local park) and some more unusual ones, such as VAT on sanitary products. As the Women's Environmental Network note, "Until comparatively recently sanitary protection was classified as a luxury item and taxed at the full VAT rate of 17.5%. Since January 2001 however, the tax on these products has been cut to a fairer 5%. They cannot be zero-rated due to a European agreement not to extend zero-rating to any products other than those already in place at the end of 1975" (WEN, pdf document). Margaret's view is that "they should be zero-rated" because "the charging of any VAT on sanitary towels and tampons is an unarguable example of sex discrimination" (1).

Of course, the fact that I know these things may be one reason why Margaret didn't seem particularly "bonkers" to me. Then again, as I'm a sandal-wearing, vegetarian Guardian reader, who regularly writes to her MP and knows plenty of people whose commitment to a variety of causes matches Margaret's, that reviewer might consider me just a little bit "bonkers" too. Which brings us back to the issue of reader perceptions and how they can differ from one individual to another. As this is an epistolary novel there is no narrator to shape the reader's perception, and so we must each fill the gaps between the texts in our own way, reaching our own conclusions about both the characters and the events which take place in the novel.

Rosy Thornton, a Bye-Fellow in Law at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, may write that "Lawyers are famous for being unimaginative thinkers. Law is one of those subjects where you dissect things" (EADT24), but this is a novel which sets the reader thinking, and not just because of the various issues raised in the course of the novel, but also because of its form: it's "written as a series of traditional letters and emails - plus the odd extract from the minutes of meetings of WITCH: Women of Ipswich Together Combating Homelessness" (EADT24) which span the period from the 14th of September 2004 to the 21st of December 2005. The various texts (which are, as the title of the novel suggests, "more than love letters") ask the reader to assume the lawyerly role of questioning the texts presented as evidence, in order to draw his or her own conclusions. Characters are also readers, reading and responding to some of the texts included in the novel, though none of them are privy to all of the texts in the way that we are. We can compare the differing linguistic registers in which Margaret writes to her grandmother, her friend Becs, and her local MP. The attention to words and texts is shared by many of the characters, some of whom enjoy wordplay and many of whom make intertextual references to a wide variety of novels and television programmes, including The West Wing, What Katy Did, and Cora's "eclectic mix [...] everything from the Brontës to Mills and Boon. We have lots of the same favourites - like Lord Peter Wimsey, and Frenchman's Creek, and those Margaret Forster family histories" (48). Cora herself suggests that references which might be familiar to people in her age-group will not be understood by those in another: "I didn't want her to hear 'Stand Down Margaret'! We really used to hate that name, didn't we. But she's so young, I don't suppose she thinks of that association" (111), and yet Thornton suggests that perhaps we should not make such assumptions too quickly. Margaret has, in fact, already said of her name that she doesn't like the shortened form
Maggie [...] for me the only image that conjures up is documentary footage on TV from the 1980s, CND demos, or striking miners on picket lines, and that inevitable angry chanting: 'Maggie, Maggie, Maggie - out, out, out' (80)
Contemporary authors can still be inspired by novels written over a century ago (More than Love Letters is loosely based on Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South) and, conversely, the old, represented by Margaret's grandmother, may be in touch with contemporary popular culture:
What's 'The West Wing', by the way? Is it something I should watch, do you think? Would I understand it? I am so grateful that you started me off watching 'Friends'. I used to really look forward to my Friday evenings, and I was so pleased when Rachel decided not to go to Paris in the end. She and Ross make such a lovely couple, don't they? (26)
In its form More Than Love Letters reminds me somewhat of the video for JXL's remix of Elvis's A Little Less Conversation. This, like Thornton's novel, is a reworking of an original text/song. The video also includes a frame, so that we become an external viewer, regarding a viewer within the frame who is himself watching various dancers and singers responding in their own ways to Elvis's original song. Thornton places us in the position of the viewer, interpreting others' interpretations. In the JXL remix the dancers and singers, from different social, ethnic and age groups, each have their own responses to the song in a way which is not dissimilar to the manner in which each character in More Than Love Letters has his or her own reactions and interpretations of events. The reader is thus presented with a variety of characters, each the main performer in his or her own drama. In addition the lyrics of the song seem an apt reflection of Margaret's feelings. In general she would like "A little less conversation, a little more action please" from her elected representatives, including, eventually, precisely that sort of "action" implied by Elvis.

The interpretation of texts and reported actions, and the ways in which they can be misleading is in fact a theme of the novel. Richard Slater is an MP in the post-Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson world of New Labour so he discusses with his friend how to maximise his media coverage and spin it to his advantage; images in newspapers can be misinterpreted; journalists may juxtapose quotations to misleading effect. More benign examples of deliberate lack of clarity can be found in the minutes of WITCH meetings, which allow the truth to be read through the lines:
Mrs Robertson from number 27 has complained again about noisy male visitors late at night. Emily and Pat T. have spoken to Lauren once more about telling the boys to keep the noise down, and explained how vital it is for the future of the project that no money should change hands. (6)
Margaret's grandmother tells of the slight (and very well-meaning) deception she engages in with her home help:
Kirsty comes at nine o'clock, which is when she starts work, and that's fair enough, she has her own little ones to get up and fed and off to school first. But I feel so idle just sitting in bed until she comes, so sometimes I have a wash and a piece of toast before she arrives, and then hop back into bed when I hear the gate. Then I have to pretend to be hungry when she makes my breakfast later. (I can tell you, love, because I know you'd never say anything.) (25)
She also recounts a story from Margaret's past which involved a verbal misunderstanding:
The very first day you started nursery school, I remember I went with Mum to meet you at three o'clock, and the first thing you said when you saw us was, 'I've got a new friend and she's called Horatio.' It took us three weeks to work out what her name really was - though your mum said Carnation wasn't much better than Horatio! (24)
Misunderstandings and deliberate deceptions (which range from the benevolent white lie to the concealment of sexual abuse) abound and we, as readers, are at times amused and at times challenged by the mixture of truths and falsehoods.

  • Thornton, Rosy. More Than Love Letters. 2006. London: Headline, 2007.


  1. Dear Laura,

    I read your analysis of my book with great pleasure and interest.

    I agree with you about the theme of interpretation or ‘spin’ within the novel – newspaper distortion, political spin, and different observers’ takes on events and texts. The epistolary format is certainly an easy way for a writer to show events from various perspectives – as well as being great fun to write!

    It is so interesting to see what themes another person will highlight. For me, I suppose, alongside the above, the main theme I saw the book as centring upon was that of madness and asylum in many forms. ‘Asylum’, indeed was my original title for the book. The hostel at the heart of the novel functions as a kind of asylum in both the mental health and the more general, human meaning of the word. The books deals with political asylum, and many of the characters are seeking refuge from the events of their lives – perhaps most notably Margaret’s landlady, Cora.

    The other main theme I was trying to bring out was the tension between Margaret’s human scale political perspective and Richard’s broader, more instrumental outlook. At times, he is prepared to railroad over the needs of individuals in order to achieve larger changes – or in order to secure greater political power, in order to be in a position to influence reform – whereas for her (at least in his view) there is no difference, as targets for her acrtivism, between global warming and dog fouling in the local park. This tension is the main way in which the novel is intended to parallel ‘North and South’. Gaskell’s novel is a romance where the love story between the two central characters runs alongside the story of their political rapprochement. There, too, the hero’s initial viewpoint (equated with male and ‘north’) is more global, with the needs of the enterprise taking precedence over those of the individuals mill workers, while the heroine is more concerned with the plight of individuals (a perspective which Gaskell equates with female and ‘south’). The argument about seemed to me to be very readily applicable to the ‘compromises of power’ which the Left in Britain has faced since 1997.

    I fear this all sounds terribly pompous – it really is also just a light, romantic comedy!

    Thanks for reading,


  2. ‘Asylum’, indeed was my original title for the book. The hostel at the heart of the novel functions as a kind of asylum in both the mental health and the more general, human meaning of the word.

    I do recall Margaret's grandmother's comments on asylum, which reminded me of the Church offering sanctuary (seemed apt as Margaret's from a clerical family), and I did notice the ways in which the house helped not just the clients, but also volunteers such as Cora and the next-door-neighbour.

    That said, I wonder if, as you wrote it, the balance shifted towards the love stories and so the issue of 'asylum' isn't quite so central now as when you first began? I think I recall Jennifer Crusie writing that Welcome to Temptation was originally going to be called Hot Fleshy Thighs and be an exploration of the issue of pornography, but it ended up as something different, and even though the pornography was still a very important theme, the balance within the novel had shifted towards the relationship/family dynamics between the heroine, the hero and his child.

    Certainly Margaret, Richard and Becs aren't in need of asylum, and in general they're care givers (in their different ways), though of course they do need other people.

    The other main theme I was trying to bring out was the tension between Margaret’s human scale political perspective and Richard’s broader, more instrumental outlook. At times, he is prepared to railroad over the needs of individuals in order to achieve larger changes – or in order to secure greater political power

    The difference between Margaret and Richard's approaches does come across very clearly. What's perhaps not so clear is whether Richard is primarily interested in power for himself, or because he believes he can do more good once in a position of power. Richard and Michael's early letters actually reminded me of The Screwtape Letters (well, it's another epistolary novel, and it's very funny and it deals with internal politics and propaganda/spin). I suspect each reader will probably decide for her/himself quite where Richard's priorities lie, and of course they do change in the course of the novel.

    I get the impression that, like John Thornton, Richard's (a) not very good at expressing his deeply felt emotions in a way which the public can understand and (b) he's got so focused on the big issues that he's perhaps overlooking the way in which a big issue is made up of individual cases.

    the ‘compromises of power’ which the Left in Britain has faced since 1997.

    Ah, now that could set me off on a long series of rants of the sort I usually direct at the radio. I shall restrain myself ;-)

  3. Hi Laura,

    I definitely think you are right that the asylum issues became more peripheral as I wrote.

    And yes, Richard definitely begins the book badly in need of Margaret to remind him what the point of being in politics was in the first place!


  4. I enjoyed the JXL/Elvis remix. You've hit on an interesting similarity. Remixes are inherently "meta" in their form, and epistolary novels can be particularly explicit about being meta-texts.

    There's the form, of course: the reader commenting on the author commenting on people commenting on events and themes. But in this case I mean there's a corollary to the Elvis remix, with its explicit layers of viewpoints. In epistles, point of view is very clear. Each epistle directly represents one character's viewpoint (or what she wants known of it), so the reader knows whose thoughts he's parsing (i.e. not the narrator's but a specific character's). The lack of a narrator also makes the reader more aware of playing that interpretive role. I can see why that structure reminded you of the remix.

  5. The lack of a narrator also makes the reader more aware of playing that interpretive role.

    I enjoyed the freedom of that, of being so obviously given the right to make up my own mind about the characters, of being handed a story with obvious gaps in it which I could fill in/interpret as I wished, and it made me aware of how much the point(s) of view from which a text is narrated affect the way the reader feels about the events in the novel. Just today I saw a post at Liz Fenwick's blog about the importance of point of view, in which she quotes Anita Burgh, who said that "controlling viewpoint is critical to success and decisions made about this can make or break a novel".

    In an epistolary novel you can feel/see that process happening with more clarity than usual because, as you say, an epistolary novel can be considered inherently metatextual.

    There are obviously downsides to the form too. For one thing the author has to make sure that all the characters have someone to write to ;-) That wasn't a problem with these characters, though, because they obviously were the kind of people who enjoyed writing.

    The epistolary form did mean that there weren't sex scenes. Some of it's described by the characters, but not in any detail. I didn't think it was a loss, because it definitely felt right for these characters, who are both quite reticent people. Also, although one loses out on "seeing" those particular moments, there's a strange emotional intensity to be gained from reading letters, even though they're fictional. In Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, Darcy's letter to Elizabeth, and Wentworth's to Anne are, to me at least, the most intense parts of those novels because the letters somehow have a force, an emotional impact, derived from the fact that the reader accepts (at least while reading) that they're texts produced by the characters.

    In More Than Love Letters Margaret says that there's something special about

    the idea of having the paper that you touched, that you looked at while you thought of the words - and then the writing itself, telling me how you were feeling by whether the words are flowing along smoothly, or scrawled in a great rush, or uneven and halting. (321)

    It seems to me that fictional love letters retain something of that magic and personal connection, even when they're printed.

    The remix is fun, and the final part of the video, where the camera pans out from the tiny little box-like rooms, each containing a person/a couple of people, to the huge ELVIS, made up of those little boxes, parallels what Rosy was saying about Richard's view of the political "big picture" which she contrasted with Margaret's very personalised connection to the issues and the individuals experiencing them.

  6. I just picked up this at the book shop in town, and meant to only read a few pages with my tea. I finished my tea and couldn't stop reading! Thanks for the recommendation. Can't wait to take out my contact lenses and really dig in!

  7. I'm really glad you're enjoying it, Kathy.

    Your comment also got me thinking about me (yes, it seems it's always about me, even when I thought it wasn't ;-) ).

    I suppose I am recommending books, or at least, I'm picking out some books in order to discuss something about them. I've sometimes blogged about novels which I personally didn't enjoy (or didn't enjoy very much from a readerly perspective), but which nonetheless were interesting for some reason (e.g. their theme, structure, or significance in the history of the genre). Unlike a reviewer, I don't attempt to give an outline of the plot and I don't give an explicit grade/mark/recommendation. But sometimes, as in this case, I probably come quite close to doing that.

    When I've got my "academic hat" on (as opposed to my "just a reader" hat), I'm trying not to let my response to a novel be governed by my personal emotional reactions to a book, but it's bound to seep out round the edges, and it would be disingenuous for me to pretend otherwise. As is obvious from what I wrote about More Than Love Letters, this was a novel I very much enjoyed reading and re-reading.

  8. As a reader, I select books in part for plot, but at least as much for other factors--language, unusualness, etc. I also look for books that are "interesting for some reason (e.g. their theme, structure, or significance in the history of the genre)". So a critique or review that leans toward the analytical can sell me a book, often more effectively than a plot summary. (Robin said much the same on SmartBitches yesterday.)

    Promotion and book cover copy that's all plot summary can fail to get my attention. All too often the plot summary reduces the book to an assembly-line product, too similar to other books on the shelf. I was turned off a Jennifer Weiner novel by a partial plot summary; the actual story turned out to have far more depth than was implied on the cover. My silliest recent example was a plot summary for Love in the Time of Cholera sounding like a Regency romance.

  9. RfP: I couldn't agree more. With commercial fiction - like romance - it is publishers not authors who dictate the jacket blurb, cover design, etc.. The tendency with the blurb is very much to summarise the early stages of the plot and not so much to highlight themes. Cover graphics and things like the 'shout line' you would imagine might be more likely to reflect the themes/tone of the book. But I suspect that more often what happens is that the publisher's marketing team is simply trying to reflect current vogues and hence tap into what they hope will sell, rather than to represent in any terribly truthful way what lies between the covers. I must admit, for example, to having been somewhat mystified by the butterflies on my cover - but butterflies were appearing on quite a number of chick lit covers at the time, and I was told they 'gave it a suitably whimsical feel'.

    (And thanks for your nice comments, Laura!)


  10. I must admit, for example, to having been somewhat mystified by the butterflies on my cover - but butterflies were appearing on quite a number of chick lit covers at the time

    Have they ever tried chicks on chick lit covers? Just thinking that in this particular case that could possibly have been understood to represent the Roly-Poly bird which does appear in the text. Or perhaps one can imagine that the butterflies have something to do with the nature walk?

  11. Maybe not the chick(en), but certainly the egg!

    Rosy x

  12. Chick lit - does the heroine go to work on an egg? Is the male protagonist a good egg or not? Is something eggstraordinary about to happen in the heroine's life? Will she crack up?

    Will I stop making bad puns? At least I know the answer to that question, and it's "yes".

  13. I wanted to thank you for discussing this book. It sounds like it's right up my street; I like the epistolatory format, and I like it when the world of a Romance story is large enough to include social issues, other important relationships beside the main romance, etc.

    Thanks. :)

  14. I hope you like it, Angel. Given what we've been discussing on the thread about The Secret Pearl I just wanted to say that More Than Love Letters does include a character who's been sexually abused, and that's not resolved in a happy, easy way. But the person this happens to is not the heroine and this is certainly not a book in which the hero takes advantage of the heroine.

  15. Given what we've been discussing on the thread about The Secret Pearl I just wanted to say that More Than Love Letters does include a character who's been sexually abused, and that's not resolved in a happy, easy way. But the person this happens to is not the heroine and this is certainly not a book in which the hero takes advantage of the heroine.

    *nod* I saw that mentioned in your view. I think it's important for it to be dealt with in literature. Portrayals of sexual abuse get various reactions from me, depending on the explicitness of the depiction, etc., but the only time they really make me sick is when the story implies a value judgment that says the heroine is a "good woman" because she surrenders again to her abuser, and learns to love him.

    Would Fleur be the heroine of the story if she'd got angry and, as was perfectly within her rights, never wanted to see or be near Adam again, and not softened toward him, let alone come to love him? No. Would she have been considered by the narrative as worthy of happily ever after with another man who hadn't abused her? No.

    An angry Fleur who had to reconcile her anger without swinging into the completely opposite direction and seeking union with her abuser wouldn't exist. Her story wouldn't be told in that book (or by that author, ever? I haven't read all her novels, so I can't be sure) and her voice wouldn't be heard. I say this because that female voice is often conspicuously silent in Romance. The book is, imo, uplifting a behavior pattern that has hurt women and continues to hurt women.

    I think this in part because I see sexual and physical abuse as a tool of operant conditioning often used by men, in particular, to emotionally control women by "softening them up" with violence combined with "kindness" to make them acquiesce.

    This seems a common pattern in partner abuse, child abuse, etc.

    That makes me spitting mad, to be honest.

    And the fact that Adam is only really a better alterative in comparison to a "much worse" man just makes it all the more galling, imo. Along with the fact that I don't think Adam would have been "sorry" if Fleur hadn't been a virgin. I think he would have been able to consign her neatly into the whore side of the extremely nasty virgin/whore value judgment scale in his head.

    The author seems to be saying that women are (or were. this is a historical) (a) a victim class that can't realistically escape abuse, and (b) that they can't expect to meet a man who won't hurt them, just hope for one who will hurt them less, and be sorry, and (c) they should appreciate the men who hurt them less, and forgive.

    I'm not saying that the story of a woman who handles abuse the way Fleur did shouldn't be told, but the author should indicate that her way isn't the only way, and certainly not the only right way.

    Uh, bringing things back on topic: I'm looking forward to (if that's the right phrase to use here) seeing how Rosy Thornton handles abuse in her story. I think that her take on it won't be problematic the way Balogh's was.