Monday, October 20, 2014

Wynfield's Kingdom: The making of a Neo-Victorian child hero, a guest essay by Marina J. Neary

Marina Julia Neary is here today with an essay about a literary archetype that appears in classic Victorian literature as well as in one of her own novels.  She also details her experience in seeing characters she created come to life on stage.  Details and photos below.


Wynfield's Kingdom:
The Making of a Neo-Victorian Child Hero
Marina Julia Neary

When I started writing the first draft of what became Wynfield's Kingdom at the age of fifteen, I did not realize I was trying to create a Neo-Victorian child hero or resurrect an archetype that was so prominent in 19th-century literature. That term was not familiar to me at the time. I read a lot of literature but not a lot of literary criticism. I just knew what type of character I gravitated towards, and it was never the romantic brooding leading man. It was the spunky, street-smart, barricade-climbing child who navigates between social classes without belonging to either one of them and yet sympathizing with everyone, even his enemies.

They have impressive survival skills, yet paradoxically their self-preservation instinct seems to go out the window when they are presented with an opportunity to show off their heroism. They don't have to be saintly or altruistic, but they do possess a benevolent streak, meaning they do not bully those who are weaker, though they do derive a certain amount of pleasure of provoking authority figures.

We are talking about Gavroche Thenardier in Les Miserables and the lesser-known Jehan Frollo in Notre-Dame de Paris. In British literature we have a string of similar characters in Charles Dickens' novels, one of the most prominent being Oliver Twist. Over the decades, cinematic and theatrical directors have exploited these characters for sentimental purposes, simplifying them, making them one-dimensional, somehow more palatable to general audiences and, as result, somewhat cartoonish. Thanks to Boublil and Schönberg, I can no longer think of Gavroche without hearing "Little People" in my head. My hands itch to choke the performer. One of Hugo's most intriguing child characters has been reduced to a cute homeless puppy. A big part of Gavroche's cuteness is that he dies young.

Now imagine if Gavroche had not died on the barricades. Imagine if he had lived into his mid-twenties. Would he still be adorable and endearing? Or would he have turned into his father? The possibilities are numerous. Maybe Hugo had a good reason to kill his young hero before he had a chance to become a disappointment to his fellow-characters as well as the readers.

Little by little I started toying with the idea of evolving a child hero. At the age of twenty-seven I resurrected an old manuscript from the bottom of my hard drive and decided to reshape the protagonist, incorporating some of the archetypal elements, putting my own decorative twists on the classic frame. This is where the term Neo-Victorian comes into play a contemporary author reinventing and reimagining the 19th century. It was also an opportunity for me to engage my dark sense of humor to the fullest.

The result is before your very eyes. Meet Wynfield Grant the king of London slums, an overgrown street urchin, whose maturity level is that of a ten-year-old. A former gang member, savagely beaten for insubordination by the ringleader, he is taken in by a sociopath physician who had lost his medical license. The child blossoms into a romantic opium addict who steals and resells revolvers, puts on comedy skits at taverns and plays darts with his simpleton mates who look up to him for leadership. Immaturity, by the way, is a potent psychological defense mechanism. If you manage to convince yourself that you are still ten years old, the burden of your semi-criminal existence becomes a little easier to bear.

Wynfield's Kingdom, published in 2009 by Fireship Press, brought me modest critical acclaim. I ended up on the cover of the First Edition magazine in the UK and featured in the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal in Wales. There is a theatrical version of the same story, only told from Victor Hugo's perspective. The play opened in Greenwich in 2008 and was subsequently acquired by Heuer Publishing for licensing and distribution.

I am happy to share some of the most illustrative photos from the production. The character of Wynfield was brought to life by a talented young actor, John Noel, who is now gaining prominence on the stages of New York City. It was one of the most transformative and empowering experiences for me as a writer to see the character I conceived in high-school fleshed out on stage fifteen years later. Wynfield, my child-hero, became real to the audiences.


Marina Julia Neary's Wynfield's Kingdom was published by Fireship Press in 2009 and re-released in 2013 in paperback and ebook with an attractive new cover (at top). 

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