Subtext and Space Between the Words

Roman Holiday subtextI’m intrigued by subtext and, in particular, the space between the words in a novel. 

Yet perhaps the most perfect example of this is not in a novel at all, but in a movie. It’s the little miracle that is Roman Holiday, starring a luminous Audrey Hepburn as a stifled princess. Gorgeous Gregory Peck plays against type as a distinctly dodgy expat newspaperman. They don’t have a Happy Ever After ending, either. Yet its perfect, mostly because of that extra layer of meaning.

Why Subtext in Roman Holiday is Interesting for Novelists

In today’s popular novel, readers have got used to the story being told by something very close to the point of view of one or more of the main characters.

characters and subtextTry saying what two characters each feel in the same scene and you’ll get a sharp “POV!!!” in your editorial comments.

You can say what only one of them feels. When it comes to Character No 2, let alone No 3 or No 4, you’re restricted to describing what the POV character thinks they’re feeling.

subtext POVRoman Holiday has a curious structure. For the first quarter, the protagonist (effectively the POV character) is the  impeccably behaved Princess Ann herself. And Joe, the Gregory Peck character, doesn’t know who she is.

For the last three quarters, Joe does know and hides it from the Princess, while trying to exploit her for his own ends. She has no idea he has discovered her secret. At least, not until the very end.

And that’s when Joe, the trickster, steps into the spotlight. He is the character making decisions, taking action, whose motivation the audience sees with painful clarity. Princess Ann mostly reacts and with seriously controlled emotion.

Result? The audience knows that main two characters are not being straight with each other. So  the romantic development can’t be articulated. And, by golly, it’s powerful for exactly that reason.

Plot Revealed Between the Words

My Last Duchess subtextIt feels very modern, but actually Robert Browning was doing it in the 1850’s in his dramatic monologues.

Consider My Last Duchess. An Italian aristocrat is showing a visitor round his art collection and they stop in front of the portrait of his latest wife. He is hugely proud. (He has “a nine-hundred-years-old name”.) It slowly emerges that he is pathologically possessive. And then the killer punch: “I gave commands. Then all smiles stopped together.” Followed up by the chilling, “There she stands as if alive.”

The reader has filled in what must have happened.

Emotional impact? Like walking into an iceberg.

Emotion Between the Words

Georgette Heyer does this often. One of my favourite examples is April Lady.

Isubtext 2 scenesn one of the first scenes in the book, Lord Cardross makes his new wife hand over her unpaid bills and promise to curb her extravagance. He is firm but relaxed and charming. Yet when he says, “We could do better than this, Nell,” and tries to take her hand, she goes into full retreat. In less than a dozen lines, we see the outward signs of everything that is wrong in the marriage. Especially we see that they are both vulnerable.

It also prepares us for more pain. Cardross, visiting his wife in the morning while she is opening her post in bed and worrying about bills and her expensive scapegrace brother, nearly kisses her. Her maid enters. Nell recoils.

Cardross leaves, “feeling all the embarrassment natural to a man discovered, at ten o’ clock in the morning, making love to his own wife.” Yes, for all Heyer’s lightness of touch here, we now know that the situation is far more serious than that. Cardross feels rejected. He is baffled. And, sophisticate though he may be, he is hurt.

Subtext or Space Between the Words

The space between the words results from a deliberate choice by the authors. It may (as in the Browning) or may not be the choice of the characters themselves.

subtext pissed offBut I always think of subtext as something that a character means to say and chooses to disguise. Possibly even from himself. I used to know someone who regularly said, “It couldn’t matter less,” which in practice always turned out to mean that you’d made a serious gaffe he was were mightily put out about it. How intentional that was, I never managed to decide.

Emotional Dénouement in Subtext

Which brings me to the absolute joy of the end of Roman Holiday. All the important emotional stuff is there, everything they haven’t said before and now have one last, horrendously public opportunity to declare. Each word is deliberately placed by Princess Ann and Joe to tell the truth ( at last!!!) to each other, while sounding like innocuous bureaucratic platitudes.

It plucks every heart string I’ve got. Happy sigh. Enjoy!

10 thoughts on “Subtext and Space Between the Words

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Wonderful. Subtext in drama is everything. Actors have to insert the subtext along with the dialogue (as you say, brilliant in Roman Holiday). So much more difficult to do it successfully in writing. I love April Lady, just for the comments you’ve made about it. You feel their pain so much throughout and yet very little is actually said. It makes the denouement so much more intense.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I so agree with you about April Lady, Liz. Though I came to it later than many. But when I re-read it, I thought some of it was so painful that the ending was much more emotionally charged than a lot of Heyer’s novels.

  2. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I loved this very perceptive post, Sophie. I think that subtext is a bit like irony in that you have to be attuned to its nuances. I’m interested in what you have to say about ‘April Lady’, a book I’ve never really liked much. I must retune my subtext antennae and have another go.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Thank you. From a critic of your experience, I take it that as a huge compliment. I was going to add something about how it’s really important that the writer gives the reader the right information. But the blog was getting so-o-o-o long. Might put it on a list to come back to at some point, though.

  3. Joanna

    My Last Duchess is one of the few poems that I remember vividly from English at school. (Yes, I’m a Philistine 😉 )
    The poem is not that long but the characters of both duke and duchess are so subtly portrayed and, in the case of the duke, with such chilling precision. I was always struck by the bit where he says he could have corrected the manners of his over-friendly wife, but that would have required a degree of stooping “and I chuse Never to stoop”.
    Gulp! Not a man in whose power any woman would want to be.
    The final irony is that the visitor to the art collection is in Ferrara to negotiate the terms of the duke’s next marriage to His Next Duchess.
    Scary. And almost all between the words.

    1. Sophie Post author

      You’ve hit the nail on the head, Joanna. I love Browning,but sometimes he feels like a novelist – or maybe even a film maker before his time! – rather than a poet. He doesn’t really do Tennysonian gorgeousness but by golly he packs a punch.

  4. Liz Fielding

    Wonderful post that will send me back to all three examples. I have to admit having glossed over My Last Duchess when at school but it sounds like an Angela Carter short story. Chilling.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Browning is brilliant at chilling, Liz. Try Porphyria’s Lover, too. Reading aloud is best, too, I think. He is just so compressed.

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