Over the last few years I have come across several posts on this subject. Very often, the emphasis has been on what to avoid. For example, the aspiring writer should avoid adjectives, adverbs, verbs ending in ‘ing’ and the passive voice. My most recent discovery was that question marks should be also avoided – from which I inferred that questions should too. This post concerns one of these only, adjectives.
So adjectives should be used sparingly and, if at all, in a striking manmer. If a given adjective is only to be expected then replace it with something more arresting. This advice will certainly be beneficial to some. These papers first came into my hands a few weeks ago and this is how they began.
‘When the comets with their milky tails race in the inky dome of the sky and Aurora laces her silky skeins over the Ladder Hills, where the stags are roaring and the red grouse call ‘Go back’ warning of danger, just as they had in Jacobite times; when the Cambus Burn runs sweet and cold into ‘The Cardinal’s Pool’, it is hard to think that this peaceful, unpretentious old house sited in its own leafy water meadow, now guarded only by swallows, curlews and peewits, is the same as . . .’
And so it continues. Even allowing for the writer’s old-fashioned cast of mind, it won’t do. When I pointed this out the author admitted to a weakness for ‘purple prose’. At which point, just to keep the pot on the boil and with no serious intent, we take issue with the adjective ‘purple’.
But adjectives are necessary and desirable, Imagine writing a pen portrait of a person or a place with none at your disposal. And who has written pen portaits of this type? (Excuse the question mark.) Many writers have but, the one who stands out for me is Ivan Turgenev.
Clearly (I had to sneak in an adverb) there are many pen portraits in Sketches from a Hunter’s Notebook. Two of the most memorable are his description of lying on his back looking up at the sky through the trees, and his description of making his way through the countryside at night when he has lost his way. But both of these are long. The following combines description with the author’s satircal streak, something which got him into trouble with the authorities. (Yes, I know, I could have said ‘deep trouble’ but held back).
‘TikhonIvanovich willed his estate, as could have been expected, to his most honoured benefactor and magnanimous patron ‘Pantaley Yeremeich Chertopkhanov’. But it brought no great benefit to the most honoured benefactor because it was quickly sold by public auction – partly in order to cover the costs of a monument over the grave, a statue which Chertopkhanov (evidently his father’s blood still ran in his veins!) wanted to erect over the ashes of his friend. He ordered the statue, which should have been that of an angel in prayer, from Moscow, but the man recommended to him to commission it, aware that in the provinces there are few sculpture experts, sent instead of an angel a goddess Flora which had for many years decorated one of the overgrown suburban parks of Catherine the Great’s time. This statue, exceedingly elegant, certainly, in rococo style, with chubby little hands, fluffy curls, a garland of roses on her naked bosom and a noticeably curved waist, was obtained by the commissioner for nothing. So it is that to this very day there stands above TikhonIvanovich’s grave a mythological goddess with one foot graciously raised who looks with truly aristocratic disdain at the calves and sheep strolling round about her, those devoted visitors to our countrygraveyards.’
Turgenev’s most famous book is the novel Fathers and Sons. The translator of my edition has studied the orginal manuscripts and discovered how much trouble Turgenev took with adjectives.
‘Most of all, of course, the working autograph manuscript reveals the struggle of the author to establish and refine the detail. The ‘realism’ of the work can literally be sensed in the minute changes, the finessing process of introducing the right descriptive adjectives into depictions of landscape or clothing or facial appearance, whereas for the greater part the dialogue (except in some of the polemical passages) received far less revision and can therefore be supposed to have formed the voiced or dramatized structure of the fiction, its inner core, the characters themselves being often signalled by no more than initials.’ Richard Freeborn
There are many descriptions in this book.
‘Arkady looked round and saw a tall woman in a black dress who had stopped in the doorway of the ballroom. She stunned him by the dignity of her bearing. Her bare arms lay beautifully against her elegant waist and fine sprays of fuchsia drooped beautifully from her brilliant hair on to her sloping shoulders. Her bright eyes shone calmly and intelligently—calmly, it has to be said, and not pensively—from beneath her slightly pronounced white temples and her lips smiled a scarcely discernible smile. Her face shone with a kind of soft and alluring strength.’
So now we can visualise Anna Sergeevna Odintsova very well, but I hear the objection – you can’t get away with this sort of thing these days. And you probably can’t, which tells us something not only about the use of adjectives but also about ‘these days’.
To conclude, an instance of Turgenev pinning someone down in a few words.
‘His mother, from the Kolyazin family, known as Agathe before marriage but as Agafokleya Kuzminishna Kirsanov in her capacity as a general’s wife, belonged to the tribe of ‘matriarchal battleaxes’ and wore sumptuous bonnets and noisy silk dresses, was always the first in church to go up to kiss the cross, talked loudly and a great deal, permitted her children to kiss her hand each morning and gave them her blessing each night—in short, lived her life to her heart’s content.’