HFCN #05: Notes on Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey


A close read of a scene from Peter Carey’s Booker-winning historical novel, Oscar and Lucinda, and some other literary updates.

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HFCN 05 Oscar and Lucinda Peter Carey

Hello Again

Thank you for your patience with my three-month break. A lot has happened since the last newsletter. I’ll share some quick, pertinent highlights before we get to this month’s topic.

First, if you don’t also get my ‘We Are All Translators’ newsletter, you may not know that I’m starting a Ph.D. program in Literature and Translation Studies at the University of Texas, Dallas in, well, a matter of weeks. As I wrote in the last WAAT newsletter, this major life change came after a lot of thought and deliberation. I plan to keep the newsletters going, however, as I’m not going to be doing any more writing workshops.

Second, while I’ve cut back on my book-reviewing activity this year, I did get some reviews published at NPR and The Guardian (upcoming this month) during the newsletter break. Historical fiction, of course. You can read those reviews and many others here.

And finally, I’m still on a social media break, which has been wonderful for my reading, writing, translating, and teaching practices. I’ve even been able to focus on a major and long-overdue backyard makeover project. There will definitely be more essay-ish stuff (for publication elsewhere, not in these newsletters) about the latter in the near future. In the meantime, if this is your kind of thing, you might like this Millions essay on writing and gardening from 2018.

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With that, let’s get to this month’s topic. From time to time, I will share certain memorable scenes from historical works with notes on the writer’s art and craft. Instead of the usual, however, I hope to approach these scenes from somewhat different perspectives. I hope this will be useful. And I look forward to discussing this further in the comments area below.


At least a decade or so ago, I read Syd Field’s classic, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, for his ideas on visual storytelling, nonlinear narratives, and other cinematic techniques—all of which can work effectively in the novel form also. And although this is not a recent book, I also found much to learn from Field’s suggestions on how to view and appreciate movie scenes for craft and storytelling.

On the topic of scene creation, Field offers a piece of advice that, while we see it often enough on screen, we may not always register consciously as a literary device in prose fiction. Here it is:

Actors often play “against the grain” of a scene; that is, they approach the scene not from the obvious approach but the unobvious approach. For example, they’ll play an “angry” scene smiling softly, hiding their rage or anger beneath a facade of niceness. Brando is a master at this.

When you’re approaching a scene, look for a way that dramatizes the scene “against the grain” or a location that could make it visually interesting. In Silver Streak, Colin Higgins writes a love scene between Jill Clayburgh and Gene Wilder in which they talk about flowers! It’s beautiful. Orson Welles, in The Lady from Shanghai, had a love scene with Rita Hayworth in an aquarium, in front of the sharks and barracudas.

Field, Syd. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. New York, NY: Delta trade paperback (revised edition), Random House. November 2005.

A side note: In my writing workshops, we always have one week where we focus on “learning from the movies.” More on that in a separate newsletter.

“Against the Grain” in Oscar and Lucinda

The scene in question occurs about seventy percent of the way through the novel. You can read it via Google Books preview here. Start with “She unlocked the door . . .” and end with “. . . she felt the space between them as if it were a living thing.”

Given their nineteenth-century upbringing, both the main characters—a gambling Anglican priest and a teenage gambling heiress—are misfits in their society and, therefore, going “against the grain” anyway. The story in a sentence: they meet under peculiar circumstances on a boat from England to Australia, and eventually decide to build a glass church together and take it across the Outback with all kinds of unusual people and experiences along the way.

This is a sweeping historical epic, an odd love story, and a deep study of obsession, religion, and land politics.

There are many scenes throughout the novel where Carey goes against the grain and delivers surprising twists and angles to draw us into the wonderfully wicked worlds of his richly-drawn characters. When I searched out and listened to him read this particular scene in a September 2003 BBC World Book Club podcast, it immediately reminded me of Syd Field’s advice above.

Just before this scene, Lucinda takes Oscar to her glassworks factory to show him how she runs it. Of course, running a factory was rare for a woman back then. Her all-male team of employees shows him automatic deference and even shares a camaraderie with him that they have withheld from her. Overcome by this observation, she rushes to her office. Oscar follows her, finds her in tears, and tries to comfort her awkwardly. He also tells her that he has found the glass-making process very beautiful.

With her vulnerability and this new private moment between them, she then takes him to a different room to show him her secret plan to build a glass house, and our scene begins. When he sees the prototype, it is a near-religious moment for him—he sees a glass church filled with light and symbolizing the soul or eternal spirit.

The dialogue next is the important clincher, although the entire scene is pivotal for multiple reasons.

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“Oh dear,” he said, “oh dearie me.”

When he turned towards her, Lucinda saw his face had gone pink. His mouth had become quite small, as if the thing which made him smile was a sherbet sweetmeat that must be sucked in secret.

He said: “I am most extraordinarily happy.”

This statement made him appear straighter, taller. His hair was on fire around the edges.

She felt a pleasant prickling along the back of her neck. She thought: This is dangerous territory you are in.

He was light, not substantial. He stood before her scratching his head and grinning, and she was grinning back.

“You have made a kennel for God’s angels.”

Whoa, she thought.

She thought: this is how the Devil looks, with a sweet heart-shaped face and violinist’s hands.

“I know God’s angels do not inhabit kennels.” He stepped into the room (she followed him) and crouched beside the tiny glass-house. It was six foot long with all its walls and roof of glass, the floor alone in timber. “But if they did, this surely is the kennel they would demand.”

“Please,” she said.

“But there is nothing irreligious,” he said, “How could we have a sense of humor if our Lord did not?”

She smiled. She thought: Oh dear.

“Do you not imagine,” he said, “that our Lord laughs together with his angels?”

She thought: I am in love. How extraordinary.

Carey, Peter. Oscar and Lucinda. New York, NY: Vintage (Knopf). November 1997.

It isn’t simply that these two are in love and she is just realizing it, but that they are both also in love with the strange glass building, which later does become a church.

Why does this work so well? Likely, Carey had many choices regarding how to dramatize the meeting of their minds, finally, over this single mission of building a glass church. He also had several opportunities, through their many interactions in the story, to show them falling in love.

First, glass plays a big part in the lives of both characters. In fact, it’s a key metaphor and motif throughout the story. And it propels the main drama of their relationship and lives later in the story. So, inevitably, there had to be an important scene with the two of them at this factory. Here’s just one of the several interesting ways that Carey reveals what glass means to Lucinda.

She kept her glass dreams from him, even whilst she appeared to talk about them. He was an admiring listener, but she only showed him the opaque skin of her dreams—window glass, the price of transporting it, the difficulties with builders who would not pay their bills inside six months. He imagined this was her business, and of course, it was, but all the things she spoke of were a fog across its landscape which was filled with such soaring mountains she would be embarrassed to lay claim to them. Her true ambition, the one she would not confess to him, was to build something Extraordinary and Fine from glass and cast iron. A conservatory, but not a conservatory. Glass laced with steel, spun like a spider web—the idea danced around the periphery of her vision, never long enough to be clear. When she attempted to make a sketch, it became diminished, wooden, inelegant. Sometimes, in her dreams, she felt she had discovered its form, but if she had, it was like an improperly fixed photograph which fades when exposed to daylight. She was wise enough, or foolish enough, to believe this did not matter, that the form would present itself to her in the end.

Carey, Peter. Oscar and Lucinda. New York, NY: Vintage (Knopf). November 1997.

Second, the purpose of this scene, we might say, is to show us the moment that Lucinda realizes how she feels about Oscar. It doesn’t happen on the ship where they first meet and discover their common love for gambling. That would have been too obvious: two obsessive-compulsive gamblers bonding over a shared guilty pleasure. Instead, Carey gives us this magical moment that’s almost like an incomprehensible mystery to both of them. If their time together on board is like a whirlwind courtship, this near-mystical exchange in the factory is like their moment of commitment to each other and to this larger goal of building this church together.

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So, while the scene moves the main plot forward, it also moves the arc of their relationship forward. And it does so in such a singular, unexpected manner that we readers willingly accept that these two must, of course, build their glass church together. We don’t need any more explanations or rationalizations for why this church vision must come to fruition. We accept it as an essential part of their being together.

There is much more here—interior and exterior conflicts for Lucinda (the POV character), subtext, foreshadowing, character revelations, historical details of the factory setting, etc. And, although we’re not in Oscar’s POV, we can pick up the subtext when he confesses envy that she has done something with her life. This is because we’ve been in his POV in previous scenes and know a bit already about his earlier life before he turned to priesthood.

The way that all of these aspects come together in this singular, powerful scene is breathtaking. Every detail is essential, and doing double- or triple-duty at least. If this scene didn’t exist, the rest of their relationship and the whole glass church endeavor would fall apart.

In the end, they are both taking a big gamble with this eccentric project of transporting a glass church across the country without breaking it. Oscar hopes for redemption from a god he’s strayed from and a way to prove his love for Lucinda. Lucinda wants to prove herself in a world where men call all the shots and, in a way, prove herself worthy of Oscar too.

There is a 1997 movie version directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring the sublime cast of Cate Blanchett, Ralph Fiennes, Ciarán Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson. Although it has won several nominations and awards, I highly recommend reading Carey’s book first for his beautiful prose and complex, layered scenes like the one above.

If You’d Like to Try This . . .

With your work-in-progress historical novel, take the two most important characters. They don’t have to be in a romantic relationship. Place them in a setting that is highly significant to at least one of them. Identify a key turning point in their relationship that can be explored in a scene set within this physical setting. Make sure this turning point is connected to or powered by sources of internal and external conflicts for both of them. If possible, situate an important period object amongst all of this as Carey has done with the glass prototype.

Now consider how you might go against the grain in depicting their interaction. For example, perhaps one of them says or does something unexpected. Make sure that there’s some suitable trigger for this, as we see with Lucinda’s action of letting Oscar into her secret vision. Then, the other responds in an unobvious, out-of-character manner, as we see with Oscar’s rather irreverent response. That response, in turn, generates a surprising choice or revelation for the first character, as we see in Lucinda’s aha moment that she’s in love with Oscar. And eventually, there is a consequence that changes their relationship forever. For Oscar and Lucinda, this unfolds in the scenes immediately following, but it’s foreshadowed here.

None of this needs to be big drama. As you can see from the example above, minimalism can be powerful.

Whenever I revisit this scene, I think of how it not only immerses readers because of its luminous prose but how it also makes us more vested in these characters and their journeys. The sensation I always get when reading it is that of witnessing a clock’s gears turning smoothly, slowly, and surely with the greatest precision in the tiniest movements. Perfection.

Your Favorite “Against the Grain” Scene?

I’d love to know about your favorite historical fiction scenes where the writer has done something along these lines. What made that scene stand out? Please share in the discussion area below.

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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student of literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has taught creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. Jenny lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas.

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