In every classroom in every school, lies a wordhoard of unappreciated treasure. Those shreds and patches of unfinished narrative that fill the workbooks and writing folders of so many children might, with a change of perspective, be valued for what they suggest rather than castigated for being incomplete. George Hunt explores.
One of my most precious possessions is the tattered wreck of a Chatterbox annual dating back to before the First World War. Chatterbox was an early children’s journal, and the volume I have, bereft of covers and of several of its first and last pages, is a treasure chest of puzzles, anecdotes, illustrations and verse.
Running through the book is a story in instalments, ‘The Secret Valley’, by a Mrs Hobart-Hampden. The story is set in India during the Raj, and relates the adventures of two children who persuade a youth to flee the remote temple where he has been forced to act as an idol. The youth can communicate with the animals of the forest, and he enlists the help of Ganesh, an immensely powerful elephant named after the Hindu god, to assist in the escape. In the course of their flight , Ganesh is wounded by a poisoned dart.
Knowing that he is going to die, he begins to make his way towards the legendary elephant’s graveyard, the Secret Valley of the title, carrying his hapless passengers with him. Before he can reach his destination, he is surrounded by a huge herd of the Rajah’s elephants, intent on taking him prisoner. As Ganesh prepares himself for his final battle with their leader, the children brace themselves for the titanic collision which will hurl them into the path of the pounding hooves. The editor tells us that the story continues on page 391. My volume of Chatterbox ends in mid-sentence on page 382.
Another of my favourite books as a child, lost long ago, was a collection called The Dark Blanket and Other Stories. The title story ends with a heartbroken milkmaid asking a sorceress to turn her into a bird so that she can escape from a king who loves her, and has wronged her. Her wish is granted, and she flies away, but some time later a child brings a dying bird to the king. He looks into its eyes, recognises them, and weeps. What had the king done to bring about this tragedy? I don’t know; the first chunk of the book was missing.
The house I was brought up in contained almost as many half books as whole ones. There were several reasons for this. My mother’s family followed a tradition of treating the written word as common property, so letters, books and magazines were passed from hand to hand until they began to disintegrate. The enthusiasm for reading evident in this practice was passed on to her children, but as we were a possessive brood, the respect for books took longer to establish, and many a volume was torn apart as it was wrested from hand to hand. The resulting pieces were retained by whoever held them, and filed away jealously amongst other scrambled fragments. The fact that our stocks came largely from school jumble sales, and especially from the cardboard boxes containing the battered, jacketless and incomplete items, greatly assisted these processes of fission and shuffling.
Had we been a co-operative bunch, we could have devised a game of storybook patience, laying out rows of scattered chapters, and steadily reconstructing texts by tracing adventures from signature to signature. But we settled for disintegration, and thus began my fascination with unfinished stories.
For most people, I suppose, the experience of having a good story dry up in mid-stream must be about as satisfying as having a good meal snatched from beneath your eagerly descending fork, but I began to find a taunting charm in these items of semi-precious scrap. They were like relics of imagery half recovered from dreams, or snatches of overheard adult conversation that carried little meaning in themselves, but by their strangeness evoked in the listener’s imagination whole sagas of speculation. ‘… so she sat there all night long,’ I once overheard an elderly auntie saying, ‘watching them squeeze in and out through the keyhole …’
The fascination of these fragments is of a similar nature to that deployed by Scheherazade, only with a genuinely unfinished story, you do not have the assurance that someone will finish it off for you at a later date. When we read an intact story, we construct possibilities for what comes next. The unfolding narrative confirms or denies our expectations, and at the same time keeps us guessing. At the end there is a sense of closure, a final verdict on our predictions, though the possible worlds we generated while engrossed in the story will continue to resonate in the regrets or satisfactions the outcome produces in us. In an unfinished story, beyond the breakpoint our speculations are suddenly freed from the verdicts of the writer. The cliché about the reader being the real author becomes a felt reality, and we can elaborate the story as fantastically as we like. If a story with a beginning, middle and end is a metaphor for a completed life, then an unfinished story is like a life that is still being lived, with all its possibilities still ahead of us.
There is, of course, a tension between the desire for closure and the lure of these endless possibilities, best illustrated by stories which give us glimpses of both alternatives. Two masterpieces of unfinished literature are Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston (1896), both incomplete because of their authors’ sudden and unexpected death. The two novels were far enough advanced, with their plots brought to crucial turning points, for us to care greatly about their characters. However, because both Dickens and Stevenson left notes suggesting possible outcomes for the stories, we are left in a tantalising position where the authors’ intentions are visible in outline, but remain as uncertain as our own speculations.
More fascinating still are stories in which the break is complete. My favourite amongst these is ‘The Story of a Recluse’, another of the many fragments left by Robert Louis Stevenson. This cautionary tale depicts a plight to be dreaded by any drunkard. A young man attempts to struggle home while inebriated and enters the wrong house. He wakes up in the early hours in a woman’s bedroom, wearing her nightdress, just as she is about to enter the room …
Some years ago, the Glaswegian author and artist Alasdair Grey wrote a TV drama which presented two conflicting endings to this story, a perfect example of the way in which these truncated tales breed offshoots like the stump of a sawn off tree. Suggested endings are, however, a fairly straightforward matter compared to what the Italian writer Italo Calvino does in his novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller … (1979). In this experimental narrative labyrinth, a slight but intriguing initial episode becomes the nucleus of wave upon wave of concentric complications.
We all know that ‘Kubla Khan’ will remain forever an unfinished story because Coleridge’s work in transcribing his opium vision was disturbed by ‘a Person on some business from Porlock’. But what about the rumour that the person was none other than Fletcher Christian (of the mutiny of the Bounty in 1789), on the run from Pitcairn Island and in search of influential friends to protect him?
A more recent example of this phenomenon is in the events preceding the publication of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (Chris van Allsburg, Andersen Press). In the foreword to the book we are told that it came about when an unknown artist came into a publishing house several years ago carrying a sheaf of illustrations from a book of children’s stories he had written. The publisher was fascinated by the eerie charm of the pictures, each of which was accompanied by an intriguing little caption. He asked to see the stories that went with them and the artist said he would bring them in. The artist then walked out of the publisher’s, leaving the drawings behind, and was never seen again. These unfinished stories, each consisting of one line of evocative print and a poignantly haunting drawing, have proven to be a fertile source of inspiration in my classroom for children seeking ideas for their own writing.
The primary classroom is, of course, the great matrix and archive of the unfinished story, and most teachers are saturated in the genre. Over the last few years I’ve often given children a taste of the frustrations that they inflict on us by recounting a story told by Tony Aylwin at a ‘Folklore in the Classroom’ course almost 20 years ago. A princess defies her father by entering a forbidden room, and in consequence is forced to marry a pig. She discovers that the creature is really a man afflicted with a curse, so she decides to try to free him from it. She consults the wind, the moon and the sun, and is told that she must wander the world with a bag of chicken bones until she has worn out three pairs of iron shoes. Then … That’s where Tony ran out of time all those years ago. Not knowing the end of the story has provided me with a perfect excuse for leading audiences up the garden path, and leaving them to find their own way home by either providing their own ending, or searching for the traditional tale on the folklore shelves. When I met Tony again recently I persuaded him to finish the story off, and was astonished at the spectacular turn of events. What happens is that … (continued on page 391)
George Hunt is a lecturer in Language in Education at the University of Reading. Formerly a primary school teacher in south east London and Dominica, George is a regular reviewer for Books for Keeps.