Happy Valentine’s Day! I’m late as usual, but I hope you spent the day feeling loved/with loved ones, whether it was with a romantic partner, friends, family or simply re-reading David Gandy by Dolce and Gabanna (don’t judge me). For those of you feeling a bit unloved, may I suggest a dog? There are loads that need rescuing, and they will provide unconditional adoration and support. Picking up excrement in public with a hand clothed in a plastic bag is a small price to pay in return (note: this only applies to dogs. If a human being offers you adoration in return for picking up their poo, it’s totally not worth it. Unless you enjoy that sort of thing, in which case, Congrats! You’ve found your soulmate). Anyhow, in much the same way that this post seems to have been hijacked by doggy-do, Valentine’s Day has been hijacked by romance. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, as well as being the patron saint of affianced couples, happy marriages and love, St Valentine is also the saint for bee keepers, plague, epilepsy and against fainting (it’s about time someone took a stand against impromptu unconsciousness). So for this Valentine’s post I’m going to look at a play featuring a bee-keeper and a novel about the plague – who needs love? (Not me, I’ve got David Gandy by Dolce and Gabanna).
Firstly, Constellations by Nick Payne (Faber & Faber 2012). I know reading a play is secondary to seeing it performed, and also that sometimes reading plays can feel secondary to reading a novel, a form written to be read. But I think it’s worth doing. Theatre can be prohibitively expensive, and depends on you being able to see the performance within a set period at a location you can reach. These factors can mean you never make it to the show. Reading the playtext enables engagement with the art (sorry, I couldn’t think how else to phrase that, I know it sounds affected, sorry, sorry) even if you never set foot in the theatre. I saw Constellations performed, and it was astounding. Reading the playtext doesn’t give you Rafe Spall’s and Sally Hawkins’ brilliant comic timing and emotionally nuanced performances, nor does it show you Tom Scutt’s beautiful design. But it does give you the characters, the plot, the language.
Marianne and Roland meet and fall in love. They meet and never see each other again. They meet and date. It goes well, it goes badly. They split up. They stay together. Roland keeps bees and sells honey. Marianne is a theoretical early universe cosmologist. Which is handy, as she can explain multiverse theory as we watch all the possibilities of their relationship played out across multiple universes:
“In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes”
Scenes are played out with minute changes and big changes, and the skill of Nick Payne’s writing ensures this stays fresh. The layering of scenes on top of each other means we end up with a great depth of understanding of the characters, seeing how the same person can react differently given only slight changes in circumstance. It does mean however, that it’s difficult to give you a quote from the play, as the dialogue really gains meaning within the set of scenes and the play as a whole. What I’ll give you, as it’s Valentine’s day, is part of Roland’s proposal speech (that’s not a spoiler, as its only one of the many possible outcomes…)
“…in a strange sort of way I’m jealous of the humble honey bee and their quiet elegance. If only our existence were that simple. If only we could understand why it is that we’re here and what it is that we’re meant to spend our lives doing. I am uncertain when it comes to a great many things. But there is now one thing that I am defiantly certain of….Marianne Aubele, will you marry me?”
Yes, Constellations is romantic. But looking at all the possible outcomes means it is resolutely realistic as well, despite the unreality of watching a multiverse romance from our monoverse (is that a word?) perspective. Throughout the different multiverses one event recurs again and again, unchanging. This underpins all the variations and creates a dramatic tension, pulling the characters towards a single conclusion. Even if you don’t usually read plays, I highly recommend you give the inventive and thought-provoking Constellations a shot (in at least this one of the many multiverses, you’ve got all the others in which to totally ignore me…)
Secondly, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (4th estate, 2001). Based on the true story of the village of Eyam, it tells the story of a village that chose to quarantine itself from the outside world in 1666 when plague struck. The narrator of the story is Anna, a young woman who loses her family and watches the village assaulted in body, mind and spirit, as the disease and its consequences takes its toll. Everyday life in extraordinary circumstances is sensitively described, such as when Anna starts acting a midwife for the village:
“Randoll burst through the blanket-door when he heard his lusty son, and his big miner’s hand fluttered like a moth from the damp head of the babe to his wife’s flushed cheek and back again, as if he didn’t know which of them he most wanted to touch… We laughed. And, for an hour, in that season of death, we celebrated a life…But even in the midst of that joy, I knew that I would have to leave the babe nursing at his mother’s breast and return to my own cottage, silent and empty, where the only sound that would greet me would be the phantom echoes of my own boys’ infant cries.”
At the time of the plague, Britain was caught between an age of religion and an age of science, and the villagers struggle between these two forces as they try to find an explanation for what they endure. In that year witchcraft, madness and illicit passions stalk the village while wild justice is meted out. By the time the year ends, every inhabitant of the village is hugely, irrevocably changed. But in the midst of the tragedies, there are miracles.
Geraldine Brooks never lets her research get in the way of the story as you sometimes find with historical novels, and the balance between historical detail and narrative drive creates a novel that is both vivid and gripping.
Bees and bubonic plague – feel the love, people……….