I’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.
Try 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.
Roman 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
It 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.
In 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.
But 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!