Novels with a message

I’ve just seen the film The Railway Man, based on an autobiographical novel by former prisoner-of-war Eric Lomax, and described in reviews as an ‘intense emotional drama’. It explores themes of confronting past traumas, and moving from revenge to forgiveness, and appeared to engage the whole audience.

Do novels, films and plays always need to carry ‘messages’ designed to affect the outlook and emotions? Not according to the saying art for art’s sake which implies that creative works are worthwhile in themselves and do not have to be justified by any practical, educational or moral function.

For novels, according to this philosophy, providing pleasure and satisfaction for both writers and readers would be sufficient raison d’être. They need not aim to change people’s attitudes or improve their minds. All the same, messages of one kind or another are probably to be found within every piece of fiction, and can enhance its interest and value even when they are not consciously intended or recognised. 

Didactic novels, deliberately promoting certain ethical or political principles, can have the desired influence if they are well written and have a strong storyline. Otherwise they sometimes come across as patronising or contrived. Messages transmitted indirectly, as a subtext revealed through the speech or actions of the characters, can be more effective. They may prompt reflection on questions (is killing ever justified? do we reap what we sow in life?) on conflicts (good versus evil, pleasure versus duty, individual versus society), on the nature of human qualities such as courage or ambition, or virtually any other topic.

After years of writing non-fiction books, mainly medical ones, I recently published my first novel Carmen’s Roses. At surface level it is an easy-to-read (I hope) story of mystery and romance. Having taken shape gradually, inspired from various different sources, it was not meant to include any specific messages. But it has turned out to have several themes, including the contrast between orthodox and alternative models of sickness and healing, the darker side of human relationships and, again, the power of forgiveness.



Balance, Bach flowers, and holistic healing

Dictionaries define the word ‘balance’ in terms of equilibrium, calmness, and equal distribution – concepts which are key to happiness and healing.

It is often said that the Bach flower remedies work by restoring balance to the personality and emotions. In other words, they help to convert an unduly negative state of mind into its more positive counterpart. The first two remedies discovered by Dr Bach provide clear illustrations of this: Mimulus to promote courage instead of fear, and the aptly-named Impatiens to promote patience for those with an impatient nature. Some more detailed examples:

 Beech: people in the negative Beech state can be critical, intolerant, judgemental and arrogant. The remedy helps them to realise their positive potential of feeling a sense of compassion and unity with others.

Centaury: those in the negative Centaury state find it hard to say ‘no’, and are so anxious to please that they continually let themselves be imposed upon, to their own detriment. In the positive state, though still willing to be of service, they can also fulfil their own needs and follow their own path.

Gorse: the negative state is one of hopelessness and despair, such as is often felt by those who suffer from a chronic illness from which they see no prospect of recovery. The positive potential is a sense of faith and hope, the willingness to try new treatments and the ability to find some positive aspects in the experience of adversity.

Balance is a key concept in relation to holistic healing for medical conditions. Besides emotional balance, this includes balance with regard to lifestyle, and to decisions about the management of illness. However, some people approach it in a quite unbalanced way. For example they may refuse a highly effective orthodox treatment because of their idealogical commitment to ‘natural’ therapies. I gave a few other examples in my book Persons not Diseases. To quote:

‘Some enthusiasts lose their sense of balance by going to extremes which do more harm than good, for example following strict diets which lead to emaciation, nutritional deficiencies or eating disorders; taking excellent care of their physical bodies, but continuing to live with the stress caused by an unhappy marriage or work situation; meditating for many hours each day but not taking any exercise or brushing their teeth properly; spending their life savings on some new ‘miracle therapy’ which has not been properly tested; or becoming so obsessed with health-related issues that they neglect other domains of life relating to work and leisure, home and garden, finances, relationships with family and friends, and spirituality.’

The Bach remedy Vervain can be helpful in curbing the over-enthusiasm of people like this, who are often highly strung, fanatical over-achievers determined to convert others to their own fixed principles and ideas. In the positive Vervain state, while still idealistic and energetic, they are more flexible and relaxed, and can appreciate Dr Bach’s statement that ‘It is by being rather than doing that great things are accomplished’.  

Why write a bio?

Several people I know have recently written their life stories, and they all say it was a rewarding experience.

I would suggest that there are three main motives for writing an autobiography. First is to provide family and friends with a record of a life which, whether because of old age or serious illness, seems likely to be nearing its end. Some hospices offer programmes to help their patients with this, and there are commercial firms which provide a paid service. Such accounts may not be ‘well written’, or contain anything out of the ordinary, or hold much interest for anyone who did not know the writer. But they are usually much appreciated by the relatives for whom they are mainly intended – though some have the effect of reviving old conflicts, or exposing family secrets. These documents may also prove valuable to any social historians who happen to come across them in the future.

A second motive is to describe achievements or experiences of an unusual kind – surviving an ordeal such as abuse or serious illness, or becoming a celebrity in a certain field. Autobiographies of this type, some of which are ghostwritten, are more likely to be published and can sell very well. They often focus on just one period or aspect of the person’s life, rather than providing a complete chronological account. My late uncle’s book Geoffrey Guy’s War: Memoirs of a Spitfire Pilot 1941-46, which I had the privilege of editing after he died, comes into this category and I did eventually find a publisher for it. 

I don’t have any children myself, and have never done anything particularly remarkable, so none of the above would apply to me and if I ever did write my autobiography it would be from a third motive, which is to review my life in the hope of finding some meaning and purpose in it all. What have I learned from my experiences, including the mistakes I have made? What difference, for better or worse, have I made to the world? Are there any recurring patterns or themes weaving through the different threads?

At present I have no plans for such a book. I think it would be difficult to write, and the end result could seem embarrassing and pretentious. There would be some things – perhaps the most significant ones – which I would rather not put on record, whether for my own sake or that of other people. And, not having kept a regular diary all my life, there is a lot which I don’t remember – though friends tell me they were surprised to find how easily old memories did come back once they started to write.

Books in other genres, including fiction, are usually autobiographical to some extent whether their authors realise it or not. This is certainly true of my own forthcoming novel, in which the characters and events can fairly be called imaginary and yet were no doubt partly inspired by material from my own past.