First-person narratives, except for the impossibly superhuman feat they display of recalling in detail what lots of characters said over a long period, are the closest the reader gets to authenticity. They should be acts of ventriloquism, in which the writer assumes a persona, including the all-important trait of unconsciously betraying the narrator’s lapses and vices. At the very least, the writer is absolved of most of the criticism a reader might level on the grounds that what the narrator does, says and thinks also apply to its creator. First-person fiction is therefore a kind of alibi: when the character is arguing a point or being chased across the rain-lashed fells by the crew of a spaceship from Quasar 13, the writer is safe at home, pecking at a keyboard.
Well, that’s the theory. The most likely pitfall for the writer is the temptation to lapse into an authorial voice. That would be the ventriloquism equivalent of moving one’s lips. Every character in a novel or story, especially one in the third person, probably expresses some part of the writer’s personality, but the elements thus distributed means that the kinship becomes fugitive. In a first-person story, the voice must be thrown as far as possible and not allowed to return home to reveal its source.
Once Per Ardua Sergo was written, I realised it had its antecedents in the TV dramas Upstairs, Downstairs and the more recent Downton Abbey. I found both to be hopelessly sentimentalised notions of what class means: characters were typical enough of their social human selves but interactions between the wealthy owners and the subservient hoi-polloi seemed forced and unconvincing. Without them there’d be no drama. Sometimes, there wasn’t, and we were given two lightweight and soft-as-fudge stories running in parallel. There was no inkling of class conflict in the non-hackneyed sense of society temporarily skewed out of true. There was little friction.
The narrator of Per Ardua Sergo (Through Difficulties I Arise – an ironic coat-of-arms motto) is roving kitchen-maid Emily Harris, who is learning to read and write; so the ventriloquism extends literally to what her writing looks like as much as to what it says. The important thing for me is that she has a personal life, she is keenly observant if slightly innocent, and she is given to moral reflection. She might also be under immediate threat. In another life, perhaps one to come, she would achieve some measure of equivalence and expressible knowledge. But the story’s a snapshot, perhaps a few pages torn from a laboriously compiled diary (more authenticity), the semi-literate, for reasons of physical exhaustion, being not given to exegesis. If I were Julian Fellowes I would have to lose it in a panoramic charade.
Nigel Jarrett is a freelance journalist and sometime music critic. He’s written poetry, essays and short stories for such journals as the Observer magazine, London Magazine, Planet, Wales Arts Review, Agenda, Poetry Wales and Poetry Ireland, and many others of dim provenance and solemn obscurity.
He is a winner of the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction. A collection of his stories, Funderland, was published in October 2011 to widespread acclaim. In November 2013, Parthian published his first poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool. His new novel, Slow Burning was published this spring by GG Books.
You can read ‘Per Ardua Sergo’ in the new spring issue of The Lonely Crowd which can by purchased here.
Copyright © Nigel Jarrett, 2016. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.