Molly Keane on Showing not Telling (Favourite Quotes)

Stripped now of all defence and of all seeming, let us consider Sylvester. One must not be harsh to him, nor must an author betray too great a knowledge, nor too one-sided enthusiasm for the person and character of his hero. This was a rule which Sylvester [a novelist] himself had endeavoured┬áto follow in his books and his plays, until one day┬áhe found that in event only were his characters betrayed, and as for persons – there was never a direct and vulgar description in the entire length of the book. In phrases descriptive of action, yes. Here was a trick through which a portrait might with more subtlety be conveyed. Thus:

‘Oliver lit a cigarette, his precise, ugly hands so slow and careful over the matter that Patience could have screamed out her disgust of him- “Darling, I want to talk to you.” His voice and his hands were the same – exact, incapable of change. It was absurd to hate a man because his voice and the shape of his hands no longer excited you…’ Well, there you had the shape of his hands and the sound of his voice and one had avoided, ‘He had ugly hands and a dull voice. He sat down beside her on the sofa. “Darling,” he said, “I want to talk to you.” She could have screamed: “Oh, go away, you dreary ass. I don’t want to talk to you. Leave me alone-”

Who observed or cared whether by the last or the first phrase they had learnt these things about dreary Oliver and temperamental Patience?

Molly Keane: Devoted Ladies, Virago Press 2012, pp. 27-28

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