Literary Faux Pas

Writers often make mistakes, and it is the joy of the sharp-eyed reader to pick them up. In a recent reading of The Offing, by Benjamin Myers, there were many aspects of the characters and their relationship that were pretty unbelievable, but one really stood out for me.

A sixteen-year old boy, Robert, is walking through the coastal parts of Northern England. Having grown up in a mining village he has only seen the sea once in his life, when his father took him there on a very long bus journey.

My father had taken me there on a rare day off; fifteen miles and two long hours by a bus whose upper deck swirled thick with the blue smoke of Players and Capstans. We had pulled crabs from the drab water of the harbour using thick string lines weighted down with six-inch nails and baited with fatty knuckles of ham.

If that was the full extent of his acquaintance with the sea wouldn’t you find this account of his first bathe  rather improbable?

…I pushed off and let the North Sea take my weight, my feet kicking a dark void as I swam out, each rising wave rising through me, lifting me up, the force of the moon exerting itself as the land disappeared from view between each undulation, everything on it obscured.

There is no way a young boy who has never been in the sea in his life could swim like this, or be so confident in the sea (without getting drowned). But Myers does not have these errors all on his own. In a very amusing article, Jake Kerridge cites many instances of writerly mistakes , one  in Dickens which I was not sharp enough to pick up at the time of reading.

in the opening chapters of Great Expectations …the escaped convict Magwitch frightens the young Pip into stealing a file so that he can cut off his leg-iron. But how exactly had Magwitch swum to freedom from a prison ship with a massive weight on his leg?

That has been accounted for by Professor John Sutherland who has suggested that swimming was such an unusual practice in Victorian times that ‘Dickens’ readers shared his vagueness about what human limits are in water.’

That is not the case today, hence my scepticism about the swimming son of a coal miner.

There are many other amusing examples of the failure of copy editors; one famous one about Piggy’s glasses in Lord of the Flies

…Piggy’s glasses are used to concentrate the sun’s rays and start a fire; Piggy being short-sighted, his glasses would have been concave, so it wouldn’t have worked.

But Dickens and Golding and Myers aren’t the only ones. Other names crop up; Shakespeare, Robert Browning, Sebastian Faulks (his was particularly egregious; blue peonies).

Even Gert Loveday may have made a few errors at times; we are quite happy for readers to point them out.

Jake Kerridge’s article can be found in the The Sunday Telegraph

20 thoughts on “Literary Faux Pas

  1. Thanks for the commentary on the ways that other authors have gone astray. I, for one, have never found an error in anything that Gert has written, and seems as if it would be more frustrating to keep an eye out for them than amusing, because they are so unlikely.

  2. In Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley a main protagonist’s eyes change colour in the course of the narrative, from hazel eyes to blue. And Jane Eyre declares her eyes aren’t hazel, as Rochester thinks, but are in fact green. However, it’s true that eye colour varies according to the observer, and the ambient light, and so on.

    As for the swimming stuff: mining communities were sometimes blessed with pits or disused quarries where water accumulated and where they could swim on their day off, so even someone who’d not been to the sea before mightn’t find floating a problem. And Magwitch may well have found some planking or driftwood to support himself while he made his way to land, given that few Victorians — weirdly, even many sailors — weren’t swimmers.

    But yes, inconsistencies — some just can’t be explained away…

    1. But did they really? Miners swim in disused quarries? Sounds most unpleasant. I think miners had a hot wash from a bowl in the kitchen when they got home from the pit and that was it for water. As for Magwitch. I think the reason a convict had a ball and chain was it made escape almost impossible, even if he was clinging to a bit of driftwood.
      I see you have no answer to Piggy’s glasses

      1. I hesitate to offer a rationale for Piggy’s glasses. All I can add is that I was told that Preseli quarrymen at Rosebush in West Wales were said to have swum in flooded stone quarries, but it true that I can’t see coal miners swimming in anything contaminated with coal dust… As for Magwitch, perhaps as his name suggests he was able to do what other mortals couldn’t? 🤔

  3. It happens and I guess the authors can claim “artistic licence”. A lot of stories are based upon hypothetical situations that stretch the imagination.

  4. Maybe Robert had learned to swim in a river, canal or lake near his home before that encounter with the North Sea? I guess I’m trying to give Myers the benefit of the doubt here, particularly as I loved the novel so much!

    1. Well it’s not mentionec if he did. I was disappointed in the book. Had been wanting to read it for a long time but found Dulcie with her lobster and discourses on everything quite annoying. But many readers enjoyed it.

      1. Oh no… I really liked Dulcie but can totally understand how others might find her idiosyncrasies rather grating! Ah well, life would be very dull if we all enjoyed the same things… x

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