There’s a familiar pattern to the arrival of Christmas cards.
At least I find there is.
Every year, it’s the same friend whose card arrives early when December is still in single figures. Just as there’s always the one that arrives late, just scraping in by Christmas Eve, with the tang of suggestion that it was only sent after receiving mine …
It’s a good way of staying in touch, often the only connection with some people through the year in spite of our mutual scrawled messages about we really must make this the year we meet ….
What is best about Christmas cards, though – they are like an informal record of our lives – a sort of retrospective diary, markers of the events and, consequentially, the people we have met over the decades along the way. Childhood, family, school, neighbourhoods, work places – certain individuals stick and their cards at Christmas trawl us back to those times.
Of course our close friends, the ones we see regularly throughout the year and no doubt email frequently, don’t really require a card to cement our connection. But we send them, anyway – it’s warming to see the cards on the mantelpiece, an affirmation of the people who touch our lives in some way. As we get older it feels even more crucial to value and hold on to essential friendships, to the people we have known for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, so to speak.
Friendships in novels can be hard to find. And it’s something that I have thought about a lot since someone commented on an early read of a draft of my first novel that my character, Grace, seemed friendless.
The truth is that unless a friendship is central to the plot – as occurs in my second novel, The Legacy of Mr Jarvis, there simply isn’t time to introduce and give sufficient space to establishing the reality of a friendship that is irrelevant to the main premise or plot. Friends – those insignificant cups of coffee with them and irrelevant chats on the phone, the stuff of ordinary life, in other words – can weigh down the action and bore the reader. Friendships need to justify their inclusion in a novel.
Because novels, after all, are not real life. We don’t need to hear about the minituae of characters’ daily lives – their teeth brushing, their hair washing, every cup of tea they drink – unless it is pivotal or revelatory. Fiction is not memoir – it is an artificial construct that has to discard casual information for the sake of pace and space.
Charlotte Lucas is far more than a casual friend of Elizabeth Bennet. Jane Austen uses her to exemplify the lot of women who need to marry to escape an unbearable father and possess neither wealth nor beauty. Her choice of the egregious Collins can be understood only in terms of what the alternative would be. And Emma’s friendship with Harriet is used to demonstrate our heroine’s lack of self knowledge as she seeks to deprive young Harriet of marriage to the worthy Robert Martin and push her in the direction of the appalling Mr Elton …
So friends appear in novels as devices, it seems, rather then purely for their own value as they are in real life(based on my far from exhaustive examples!) – comfortable companions with shared interests or past histories who have become part of the framework and landscape of our lives.
A glance at my Christmas cards perched on the shelf reflects friendships that span the years – in fact, you could say there’s one from every decade of my life so far – and the longevity of some is to be cherished.
In fact, come to think of it, perhaps this is a way of acknowledging a protagonist’s friends in a novel without overburdening the plot and prose – a paragraph or so devoted to studying the mantelpiece display on Christmas Day …..
I think I may have stumbled over something to introduce into my current work in progress – novel number 4 – with my protagonist, Lily Page, contemplating the cards received for Christmas 1983, the year the story is set.
Watch this space!
In the meantime ….
A very Happy Christmas to everyone!
And there’s still time to post that last card!