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This item is taken from PN Review 203, Volume 38 Number 3, January - February 2012.

Letter from Robert Griffiths(-Snook)
Gap-Filling, or, What Anna and Esther Did Next

Sir: It is possible that in his interesting remarks on possibility ('"The Present Kind of France is Bald": On Possible Worlds', PNR 202) Roger Caldwell is too parsimonious about possibility. He rightly notes that fictional worlds are 'gappy', which presumably leaves plenty of room for gap-filling. In other words, almost anything is possible where fiction is concerned.

It is surprising then that he worries about what is essential or accidental to a fictional character. He says, for instance, that we could not conceive of Sherlock Holmes married with three children. But I am halfway through writing a hopefully best-selling novel in which Holmes, tired of taking on the underworld single-handed, and bored with Watson's deferential idiocy, has decided to retire to a cottage in Suffolk with a certain Miss Picklethwaite, where he intends to complete a translation of Plotinus's Enneads and sire a large family. He may also write memoirs concerning an earlier life.

We are told again that fictional worlds are gappy, that artists 'do not create complete worlds'. But then it is more than surprising to be told that nevertheless 'what is possible in one artistic world is impossible in another', that it is impossible, for instance, to imagine Anna Karenina in Bleak House. And yet, here I am, in possession of a manuscript through the generosity of my late great-great-great-grandfather, Admiral Sir Herbert Griffiths-Snook, a personal friend of Crown Princes, Artists and the Common Man, and a close friend of both Charles Dickens and the eminent, if little known, Russian novelist, Alexander Volkorov Tolstoy, which latter, my research will show, was actually the author of Anna Karenina as well as the disowned bastard sibling of the better known but putative fraud Leo Tolstoy, and this said manuscript represents the hitherto hidden collaboration between Dickens and A.V. Tolstoy on an early version of Bleak House to be entitled, perhaps, (Anna of) Bleak House in which the friendship between Anna Karenina and Esther Summerson is explored with remarkable sensitivity. The work is particularly striking for its startlingly modernistic exploration of a possible ménage featuring Karenina, Summerson and Carstone, to which end they actually purchase a cottage in Suffolk which, in later years, coincidentally became the retirement home of one Sherlock Holmes and his family.


Roger Caldwell writes: My contention is that the fictional world is (necessarily) a gappy one in that, whereas in our world everything is, or will be, determined, in the fictional world there is much that is, and will remain, indeterminable. There are gaps, that is, not in the sense in which there are missing pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, but in that of there being genuine indeterminacies: Mrs Dalloway's London may, and does, include Regent Street but is silent about the Old Kent Road, as it is about much else.

I go on to extend the notions of necessity and contingency that we can apply to ourselves as non-fictional beings to fictional characters as they appear in novels. Griffiths, by implication, holds that this is illegitimate: for him a fictional character, unlike ourselves, has unlimited possibilities, dependent on the whim of his or her creator. I maintain, on the contrary, that there are constraints on what an author can make his characters say or do - if they are to remain the same characters. If in a story supposedly about Sherlock Holmes we are told that he donned a cape and mask, and drove a Batmobile, we simply cease to believe that this is still Sherlock Homes. That is, some of the 'gaps' in a fictional character's life can be filled in, but they cannot be filled in at random, as Griffiths holds. A fictional character, like a non-fictional one, must be free of logical contradiction, must fit in consistently with the physical constraints of the world in which he is instantiated; but a fictional character, unlike a non-fictional one, has an additional requirement - he must also be believable.

The logician, by contrast, knows no such constraints: he can invent worlds at the drop of a hat - say, one which contain only triangles, or objects coloured green, or one in which the only people are clones of Robert Griffiths. These are possible but not probable worlds. The novelist, by comparison, not only posits by fiat a world, but goes on to creatively realise it: further, we are speaking not only of a world but also of a world-view. I argue that the worlds created by major writers such as Dickens or Tolstoy are incommensurable, that because the characters take their bearing from the world (and world-view) of which they are part, they are not simply transferable from one world to another as pieces of furniture might be. They might bear the same name, but will not be the same character. Falstaff appears both in Henry IV and in The Merry Wives of Windsor, but so altered is he in the latter that for many he is not the 'real' Falstaff but a lesser and different being. Of course, one wishes well of Griffiths' Sherlock Holmes novel, but unless his Holmes is consistent with the 'canonical' Holmes of the Conan Doyle stories, unless he shares some of the same tics of speech and personality, no one is going to believe he is 'really' Sherlock Holmes, but only a confidence-trickster masquerading under that name.

For bearing the same name, whether in fiction or out of it, doesn't mean an identity of person or character. I know from surfing the internet that there are a number of Roger Caldwells, only one of whom is also myself. I presume that the name 'Robert Griffiths' likewise has multiple referents, and it makes no sense to ask who is the real Griffiths and who is the impostor, for all of them are, or may be, real. However, fictional worlds are not so generous: in fiction there is a place for only one Sherlock Holmes, and at one point he lived at 221b Baker Street and solved numerous crimes and mysteries. Of course, such is his fame that many have parodied him, and many have claimed to be him, and many more have written about him, just as they did about Don Quixote. But, as in that case, most of them told lies.

This item is taken from PN Review 203, Volume 38 Number 3, January - February 2012.

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