There are multiple elements that must conform to the structure of a novel for it to work out. One of those elements, and probably one of the most important ones, is whether the reader is able to believe what they read. If this does not happen, then the story cannot function correctly no matter how great it is. In other words, the reason why it is essential to create a believable story resides in the importance of the reader. To help understand the relevance of this topic, this article will analyse the novel "My Policeman" by Bethan Roberts. My Policeman was published in 2012 and tells the story of Tom, Marion, and Patrick set in Brighton during the 1950s.
To summarize the plot of My Policeman: Marion, a schoolteacher, and Tom, a policeman, get married, yet this is not the future Tom expected for himself. Tom had previously known that he is attracted to men, but due to the time period the book is set in, same-sex relationships were not accepted yet; therefore, Tom had to come to terms with the reality that it would be best for him to marry a woman like Marion if he wished to be accepted in society. Years later, Tom suddenly meets Patrick, a museum curator, and they fall madly in love. Unfortunately, they are unable to show their feelings to the world for fear of the consequences. From then on, the three characters' lives change, and they each have to adapt to their new reality of having to live a life they do not want. Roberts explained how she found it challenging to portray situations and worries of people who had lived completely different situations in a time period she did not live through herself. Still, she decided that it was part of the interesting aspects of a writer's work: "One of the great pleasures of reading and writing fiction is inhabiting worlds far from your own experience" (Roberts, 2018).
The novel plays with the reader's perceptions from the moment the story begins; the reader falls into the idea that everything that occurs within the book is also happening in the real world; therefore, the reader perceives it as a reality (Rosenzweig, 2012). Roberts is aware of this psychological response within the reader and plays with the perception of how the novel is read. As the plot contains LGBT+ relationships in a time when they were not accepted, the reader assumes that My Policeman is a story of forbidden love, but it is more than that. Roberts focuses the story on both the married couple, Marion and Tom, as well as on the two lovers, Tom and Patrick; therefore, the reader is able to understand the perspectives of the two individuals whom both love Tom but cannot fully have him.
Context is a key element for the reader to understand the story. As the novel is set during the 50s in England, the reader can create, in their minds, a general idea of how the ambience and the social situations were during this time — especially in the way of seeing same-sex relationships, as it is the main plot point of the novel. Therefore, it is easy to understand why Tom is so concerned about hiding his sexuality, or, for example, the treatment that Marion receives for being a 'working woman' instead of a housewife. The author twists the expectations of the reader. It is important for an author to remember the relevance of their reader's possible perspectives and to anticipate them in advance. Taking this into account, Roberts does not only tell the story of two people who have to hide who they truly are but also the story of a woman (Marion) who sees her marriage falling apart without knowing what she is doing wrong, seeing her husband caring neither for her nor their relationship, and watching him go away regularly with excuses to be with his lover Patrick. By being a witness to the characters' lives, the reader realises, in this way, that My Policeman is not a love story but a novel that shows how lives can be destroyed due to society's prejudices. This kind of change in perspective of the reader can affect the narration negatively as it can make the reader think that the story is not believable (Ruokonen, 2011), but, in this case, Roberts is able to not change the story, but instead, tell it from a new point of view.
The change in the way the readers see the character can be perceived from the moment Marion denounces Patrick for being a "sexual invert who is guilty of acts of gross indecency with other men"(Roberts, 2012, p. 280). At this point, although the reader is able to see that what Marion has done is harsh, the truth is that throughout the novel, it becomes clearer that Marion is suffering due to being in the unknown about the state of her marriage with Tom. As a result, the reader is expected to feel sympathy for Marion and not place the blame on her, as the reader understands and sees her suffering.
Writer Louise Rosenblatt explained the importance of the text in itself: "a text, once it leaves its author’s hands, is simply paper and ink until a reader evokes from it a literary work — sometimes, even, a literary work of art." (1994, p. ix) This explanation exemplifies the importance of the novel My Policeman, and it shows how a novel or a text's importance lies not only in what it tells but also in how the reader perceives it. Creating a clear understanding of a story to its fullest is the most important part of the narration, as it proves that the text has relevance on its own — that it can reach the public by completing the intention of telling a story that matters and resonates with its reader.
Bethan Roberts is able to create an atmosphere where the reader feels comfortable. The reader does not need to have lived during the same time period, the same place, or have had similar experiences as the characters — the story seems real because it is well-constructed, making both the characters and the situations they are put in believable. The reader feels sympathy for the love story of Patrick and Tom, but they also feel bad for Marion as she suffers the same as the male protagonist, just in a different way. My Policeman is not just a love story but also about the suffering of love in difficult times.
Roberts, B. (2018) “Writing My Policeman.”. Accessed Jun 26, 2022
Roberts, B. (2012). My Policeman. Penguin Random House.
Rosenzweig, P. J., & Leving, Y. (2012). The importance of reader response. Anatomy of a Short Story. Nabokov’s Puzzles, Codes,“Signs and Symbols", 158-164
Rosenblatt, L. M. (1994). The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. SIU Press.
Ruokonen, M. (2011). Target readers’ expectations and reality: Conformity or conflict?. Beyond Borders: Translations Moving Languages, Literatures and Culture. Berlin: Frank & Tunne, 73-100.
Cover: [Cover of “My Policeman”]. (2021). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Policeman#/media/File:My_Policeman_(book_cover).jpg
Figure 1: [Bethan Roberts]. (n.d.). Bethan Roberts. https://bethanrobertswriter.co.uk/about /
Figure 2: [David Dawson, Emma Corrin, and Harry Styles on the 2022 film adaptation]. (2022). GQ. https://www.revistagq.com/noticias/articulo/my-policeman-trailer-harry-styles-amazon-prime-video
Figure 3: [Brighton in the 1950s]. (1952). My Brighton and Hove. https://www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk/places/placetrans-2/brighton-station/brighton-station-7