Purple Prose

Purple Prose

Summer is well and truly upon us. With thermometers registering 44 degrees here in the Hérault department, that is something of an understatement.

In the still-cool morning, thinking about colour.

A kitchen window left ajar. Between fly-splattered panes, a burnt green and pink geranium on the exterior window-sill. High above mushroom-coloured rendered façades topped with dusty-orange tiled roofs, the longed-for azure sky, harsher than they had ever imagined possible. He opened the window fully and leant out. Blueness and heat buzzed in his ears. Shutters swung closed. He fell back into the kitchen, now plunged into shadowed indigos. Momentary relief from the sky’s reproaches. He looked up at the ceiling. The sticky glimmer of streaked ribbons hanging from wooden beams. The buzzing had stopped. Only the echo of a tired struggle remained. He would let his sons sleep a little longer.

“Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to peices. The shade of green Orlando now saw spoilt his rhyme and split his metre” (Virginia Woolf, Orlando, 1928, p.11).

A suggested lesson plan for thinking about colour in writing.

  1. Take one minute to think of a colour and an adjective that sums up your mood. (NOT: happy, sad, bored, interested, good or bad) Now let’s take the temperature. (going round the class adjectives and colours are noted on the board).
  • Add the missing colours and match the expressions up to their meanings
A _______________ opportunity unexpectedly
A _______________ recruit Comes from an affluent
Out of the ___________ unclear
Be caught _____ – handed hypocritical
Born with a _____ spoon in their mouth A great chance
Roll out the _____ carpet Greet someone with honour
Look at the world through rose-coloured spectacles Somebody inexperienced
A case of the pot calling the kettle _____ bureaucracy
It’s not ____ or ______ In flagrante
_____ tape optimistic
  • Think of some idioms using colour in French. Are they the same in English? Discuss.
  • Read the follow chapter from Raymond Queneau’s Exercise in Style (1947) translated by Barbara Wright.

‘One day I happened to be on the platform of a violet bus. There was a rather ridiculous young man on it – indigo neck, cord round his hat. All of a sudden he started to remonstrate with a blue man. He charged him in particular, in a green voice, with jostling him every time anybody got off. Having said this, he rushed headlong towards a yellow seat and sat down on it.

Two hours later I saw him in front of an orange-coloured station. He was with a friend who  was advising him to have another button put on his red overcoat.’

What do you guess the title of this chapter is? What effect do the colours have on the reader?

  • Read the following paragraph from Jonathon Coe’s novel The Rotters’ Club (2001) and discuss what colour you think is missing and why?
  • Colin bought another round, and there was still no sign of Roy. They sat and drank their pints. The tables in which their faces were dimly reflected were dark _____, the darkest _____, the colour of Bournville chocolate. The walls were a lighter ________, the colour of Dairy Milk; the carpet was ________, with little hexagons of a slightly different ______, if you looked closely; The ceiling was meant to be off-white, but was in fact _______ _____ed by the nicotine smoke of a million unfiltered cigarettes. Most of the cars in the car park were _____ as were most of the clothes worn by the patrons; Nobody in the pub really noticed the predominance of _______, or if they did, thought it worth remarking upon. These were _______ times
  • Make a list of the nouns that are qualified by the colour. Which is the odd one out? Why?
  • What words qualify the shade of the colour? List other words we use to describe different hues of colour.  
  • What colour(s) do the following evoke for you ?
  • ‘my skirt the colour of / all the disappointments of a day (Eavan Boland, 1990).
  • ‘The straw-coloured months of childhood’. An Teach Tui 

What does this last expression evoke about childhood? What would you replace ‘straw’ by?

  • Take 5 minutes to describe and write some impressions of your own childhood in colours.
  •  Taking into account all that we have thought about today write a story around four words (taking one from each column). Don’t forget to add one or two characters.
Nouns Emotional States Nouns Colours
Lion, rabbit, violin, harp, banjo, stick, teapot, Strawberry, fire, peach, apple, handbag, bench Astounded, brow-beaten, disappointed, hopeful, furious, uneasy, distraught, hateful, ecstatic, sword, book, cocktail, flowers, shoes, ceiling, table, chair, bus, train, wall tangerine, turquoise, carmine, plum, teal, beige, tan, brick red, lavender, aquamarine, copper, jade, ivory, khaki, mauve, taupe, umber…  
  • Now let’s take the temperature again.
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