The Central Conceit

I was reading a book the other day, and thinking about how improbable the central conceit it contained really was. Even for a book published when my grandmother was a small girl. I kept reading it, anyway, and enjoyed it, but that didn’t change the fact that it was impossible from beginning to end.

I’m not talking about being conceited, which is a whole ‘other thing. Although you could certainly have a conceited character in a book with a conceit. If you wrote the book to have a conceited character, the conceit would be your conceit.

Heh. Enough of that. This is what I’m talking about:

In literature, a conceit is an idea, collection of ideas, metaphor, structure, or other imagined device which defines or enables the world of the story, or some action in it. Conceits can be obvious; if a book is about space explorers who question their humanity upon discovering life on Mars, the conceit is that there is life on Mars. Originally the term was used much more specifically, to refer to a deliberately chosen juxtaposition that rarely or never occurs naturally (life/Mars), used as a means of revealing the unique properties of the items or ideas being juxtaposed. Its usage has become much broadened.

The specific book I was reading was The Grey Mask, by Patricia Wentworth. Sarah Hoyt had introduced me to Wentworth’s fluffy mysteries some time ago, but they were not cheap on kindle, so I had read a few, and then wandered away to read other things. Recently they have gone out of copyright and are now a buck or two and they are well worth that! You’ll find them mostly under her real name, Dora Amy Elles, for that price. Fun, light mysteries with that peculiarly British conceit of the elderly knitting lady solving crimes… although Wentworth’s Miss Silver is a bonafide private detective in that she makes her living solving crimes. Above and beyond that conceit, however, the Grey Mask was particularly… well. I’m going to spoil the book here. If you haven’t read it, and want to before reading the rest, go ahead. This post will be here when you can come back, and we can discuss in comments. If you enjoy Agatha Christie or Mary Roberts Rhinehart you will likely enjoy Wentworth as well.

The central conceit of Grey Mask is that a young man returns from being Away (never you mind why…) and discovers a horribly masked man running a conspiracy of criminals from his long-empty ancestral home. He really ought to jump up, run out, and notify the police, but he recognizes one of the people coming to report to the criminal mastermind: his former betrothed, who jilted him at the altar. Still carrying a torch, he attempts to discover if she had really gone bad, or had been tricked into something.

It’s so trite and over-the-top, especially to modern eyes. However, it was written in 1928. The public was feasting on mysteries, conspiracies, the weird and twisted. DH Lawrence would publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover in this year. Agatha Christie’s Blue Train, Dorothy Sayer’s Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and her Lord Peter Views the Body would come out. It interested me to look at this list of popular books published that year, almost a hundred years ago now, and note how many of them I have either read, or at least heard of. Improbable conceits? Skylark of Space came out in 1928. How much more improbable might that have seemed to the readers then versus that masked conspiracy  to me, now? I don’t think that three Hardy Boys mysteries coming out in that year lent itself to the conceit of Grey Mask (or the other books of that year) but they do show, I suspect, the accepted, comfortable, and popular themes of adult books writ into books for the young to consume and be molded by.

The other part of Grey Mask that ought to have kicked me right out of the story is that so much of it relies on wild coincidences. The heroine happens to be at the right place at the right time – in a vast, bustling city – to rescue a pivotal plot character. And then there is a wildly improbable coincidental relationship between those two – foreshadowed so heavily as to be immediately transparent – that plays into some of the necessary (is it? Is it always necessary to have the heroine dripping with fears?) drama that plays out in preventing our two lovebirds from being together.

And yet… and yet even though I could have guessed some of it from the beginning, and the ending was awfully contrived, I still read it, enjoyed it, and am happily munching my little bookworm self through all the Miss Silver series (there’s 30-odd of them) to the mild dismay of my First Reader (we share a Kindle account, as it’s easier for me to keep him in reading material this way) as he has to ignore them. He’s read one or two but they are decidedly not his cup of tea. I come for the characters, he pays more attention to the holes in the plot and the conceit that is so contrived it resembles a rococo sitting room.

Header image is from Pixabay, by Dozemode. 

20 thoughts on “The Central Conceit

  1. First thought – I’ve been to that church. Second thought – oh my gosh, the parquet work in that floor and in the next room!

    Ahem. Sorry. Woodworker’s daughter and occasional assistant. Where were we? It’s fascinating how different time periods preferred, and encouraged, different sorts of conceits in popular books. I remember skimming the start of one of my grandmother’s stacks of mystery/romances, and it began with a Vegas showgirl mending her costume. She dozed off, there was a fire, she got out, but she had no job. So she was forced to accept an offer to help care for [brooding protagonist’s] ageing relative in an isolated manse [not quite in the bleak moors but close], and . . . The next one in the stack – similar. And so on. They were all from the late 1970s.

    1. Gothics seem to have been – and still are – a perennial conceit in romances. I know I posted about that recently.

      And you’ve been to that church? Nifty! it’s amazing, but so, so busy. And the details in the sitting room are great, but there are a lot of them (also, those chairs do not look comfortable).

  2. “However, it was written in 1928. The public was feasting on mysteries, conspiracies, the weird and twisted.”

    Edgar Wallace built his whole career on them. Now there’s a once-popular author who’s fallen into relative obscurity.

    1. Or E.E. Smith, for that matter… not many modern SF fans have even heard of him, much less read “Skylark of Space” or “Spacehounds of IPC.”

      1. I have, as an adult, because they were in public domain and I was consuming all the free books I could get my hands on – the library wasn’t an option. Led to some interesting discoveries you couldn’t get in libraries. Ebooks revived a whole bunch of the oldies.

        1. If you read the public domain version of Skylark of Space, you really should go back and reread a better version.

          There were three versions generally available. The first was the 1928 Amazing Stories version, which has Lee Hawkins Garby as a co-author. That version is public domain, and is the text that Project Gutenberg used, and is often reprinted (sometimes without the Garby name), since it’s PD.

          He rewrote it somewhat for hardcover book publication for the 1946 Buffalo Books hardcover (and that text was also used for the Hadley (1947) and FFF (1950) hardcovers. Some of the Garby text was still there, so she’s still credited as a co-author.

          In 1958, he went back and did another massive rewrite of the text for a Pyramid paperback, and that’s the preferred version of the text. But there was no hardcover version of the text — Pyramid was a paperback publisher, and they kept releasing new editions, but always in paperback (with some gorgeous Jack Gaughan covers starting with the 1966 reprint — which was the copy I first read, and still have). Note that Pyramid was bought by Berkley Books, which was later merged into Penguin (along with Ace, among the major SF publishers of the past).

          So there hasn’t been a hardcover of the book’s preferred text as a standalone book. However, there was a Science Fiction Book Club single-volume reprint of all four Skylark novels (which was also the only hardcover of Skylark DuQuesne, which had only appeared in magazine serialization and the Pyramid paperback). The Orion/Gateway ebook 4-book consolidated edition also uses the final text, whereas most of the other ebook versions use the 1928 text.

          (Yes, I’m a fan of Doc Smith’s writing, although I never met him — but I recognize that modern readers may have troubles with it. The prose can be clumsy — but the plot/characters grab you, and keeps you going through the story. And I still wish that somebody would reprint the magazine versions of the Lensmen books, since the handling of a multi-book reveal was brilliant, and the book versions all reveal things to the readers, if not the characters, too soon.)

          1. I’ve been getting into Smith the last few years. Gateway did some new editions of the Lensmen series recently.

          2. Ah, you might be the guy to ask – do you know if Smith meant for “Spacehounds of IPC” to be part of the Lensmen books, or if the publishers just tossed it in during one of the Lensmen reprints?

            The timeline and technology of “Spacehounds” doesn’t quite fit the Lensmen books, besides being entirely standalone, which is why I’ve questioned whether it was actually meant to be part of the series.

            I have a special fondness for that book. I was probably ten or eleven years old when I read it, and it greatly influenced the adult I eventually became.

            1. “Spacehounds of IPC” wasn’t designed as any part of the Lensmen — either as originally planned, or as later released.

              The Lensmen series was originally planned as a four book series, starting with Galactic Patrol, all serialized in Astounding. In the series, as originally released, we (like Kinnison and the other lensmen) do not know of the Eddorians, or of the greater scope of the conflict. The readers only know what the characters know. So that the reveal at the beginning of each of the later books — that the enemy destroyed at the end of the prior book is not the ultimate one — comes as a surprise to the reader, as well as to Kinnison.

              In 1948, after all four books had appeared in the magazines, Lloyd Eschbach — the publisher of Fantasy Press — proposed to issue the books in hardcover. But he wanted more, so he talked Smith into expanding the series. Smith took an unrelated existing novella, “Triplanetary”, and added new material about the Eddorians, and the early wars on Earth (the WW2 section was, in fact, almost perfectly autobiographical) to form a novel version, and then wrote a new novel — First Lensman as a bridge to the rest of the series.

              And he rewrote the existing works slightly (I haven’t ever counted it, but it was probably under a thousand words total), to take advantage of the readers knowing about the Eddorians, and the levels under them, and gives away things, but not to Kinnison. So that, for example, in the battle between Fossten and Kinnison at the end of Second Stage Lensmen, the references to Eddore don’t exist (but that only required three sentences to change). In many ways, I thought the original story was stronger for the multiple reveals to the reader — but all the editions that have appeared since the book publication use the revised text, and the only way you can read the original versions is to look in old Astoundings (which I have). I really wish that somebody would reprint the magazine versions — but the six book version seems so entrenched that no publisher is willing to take a chance on publishing a book that nobody, except of few people, would want. And the Smith estate was very careful to renew all the copyrights, so nobody can just publish the magazine versions if they went PD (which is where the original Skylark reprints of the Amazing version come from).

              He did write one other book set in the Lensmen universe, The Vortex Blaster (actually, three shorter works about the same character, later published as a novel), but, while it takes place in that universe, and refers to events there, the main Lensmen series characters don’t appear. But, since it takes place in the universe, then Pyramid (who published the paperback Lensman books) often published it as a seventh Lensman book — but it’s not in the main line of the series.

              1. And a quick note about non-Smith Lensmen stories.

                Dave Kyle (an old friend of Smith), with permission, wrote 3 novels as sequels in the Lensmen universe (Dragon Lensmen, Lensmen From Rigel, Z-Lensmen). Since Smith authorized them, then they are officially part — but not really.

                And Randall Garrett did a satirical pastiche of a Lensmen story, “Backstage Lensmen”. He got Smith incredibly right (and Smith really enjoyed it when he read it). It was first written in the late 40s (Garrett didn’t remember exactly when), but didn’t get professionally published until Analog (June 1978), and in a collection of Garrett’s takeoff’s called Takeoff, from a small press called Starblaze.

                The more you really like the Lensmen books, the more you need to read “Backstage Lensman”. Smith thought so.

                1. The series was of course translated into Japanese, and “loosely” adapted as an anime series. I’ve been meaning to buy the books just for the cover art.

                  In 2001, Hideyuki Furuhashi (currently writing a My Hero Academia spinoff) wrote a light novel called “Samurai Lensman”, which includes an illustration that clearly places it in the main-series timeline. Except for the sperm whale Lensman, that is.


              2. Vortex Blaster is not entirely consistent with the earlier books. There are HOW many levels of Lensmen? And they all know about each other?

    2. C.S. Lewis, discussing how the potboilers of yesteryear became the classics of tomorrow, pointed out that Wallace and Wodehouse might end up the literature, and not Pound and Eliot.

      (Actually one in each category, judging by the bookstore shelves. Not bad for a guess.)

  3. I’ve read 13 of the 184 books, mostly the mysteries. Looking at all the titles (fiction and non-fiction), I’d be inclined to say people were more cultured back then (e.g. see On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time by by Edmund Husserl).

    Weirdest title is Irene’s Cunt (and, no, I’m not interested in reading it).

  4. I’m struggling with two things here. One is, did you really say that books were less believable in your grandmother’s time? Or just that authors back then had conceits that were less believable? And the second sore spot in my mind is that we are living through something that is so improbable that if someone had put it in a book *as a conceit* it would have been rejected. I think.

    1. No, that conceits have changed, so if you were to set some conceits in modern times they would seem very out of place.

      And yes. Fiction must be at least somewhat plausible. Life has no restraints.

      1. I think I get it…. Our conceits, whatever they are, will seem just as silly in the future as the older ones seem to us now?

        There must be some anchor in any given time that allows certain conceits to work and that anchor itself must change. I’m thinking about blackmail in Sherlock vs now. I remember someone saying some years ago that blackmail didn’t happen anymore but of course that’s not true. It’s just that the things you can blackmail people over have changed…

        1. Blackmail is a common conceit in Wentworth’s mysteries as well. Yes, our concepts and what matters to us very much now will shift with time. In Wentworth’s time you didn’t go off with a man you weren’t married to unless you were aware of the consequences. Now? Not so much. 100 years from now? Who knows!

        2. Mostly it’s a matter of habit — and easing into it. The conspiracy probably built up from simple ones.

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