Archive for July, 2012

15/07/2012

The Trail Of The Serpent

…her reign as heroine-in-chief of this dark romance in real life was only put an end to by the appearance of Mr Peters, the hero, who came home by-and-by, hot and dusty, to announce to the world of Little Gulliver Street, by means of the alphabet, very grimy after his exertions, that the dead man had been recognised as the principal usher of a great school up at the other end of the town, and that his name was, or had been, Jabez North… Mr Peters, whose business it was to pry about the confines of this shadowy land, though powerless to penetrate the interior, could only discover some faint rumour of an ambitious love for his master’s daughter as being the cause of the young usher’s untimely end. What secrets this dead man had carried with him into the shadow-land, who shall say? There might be one, perhaps, which even Mr Peters, with his utmost acuteness, could not discover.

For this, my first examination of one of the many, many novels of the remarkable Mary Elizabeth Braddon, I am planning on taking a different approach from my usual blogging—for the reason that, in stark contrast to most of the novels examined at this site, The Trail Of The Serpent has been fairly recently reissued and is still in print. Instead of the usual detailed synopsis that I usually feel compelled to provide, on the assumption that no-one but me ever has or ever will read the work in question, I’m going to concentrate on the features that make this such a surprising and enjoyable book, while encouraging everyone to track down a copy and read it for themselves. Probably I won’t be able to entirely avoid spoilers in this piece, but so numerous are the pleasures of The Trail Of The Serpent that there will still be plenty left for you to discover by yourselves.

The first point to be made about The Trail Of The Serpent is that it is not a mystery novel: although it deals with the commission of crimes, and the investigation of some of those crimes, the reader is aware from the outset of the identity of the guilty party. On the other hand, although in structure it bears little resemblance to the kind of novel to which we would apply the term today, The Trail Of The Serpent is a detective novel—perhaps the very first English detective novel—inasmuch as it opens with a crime, follows the pursuit of the criminal by a detective, first in a professional, then in an amateur capacity, and closes when the criminal has been apprehended, the innocent vindicated, and the truth made public.

Whatever else The Trail Of The Serpent is or is not, however, there is no disputing that it falls into that strange and wonderful category of Victorian literature known as “the sensation novel”, which attracted critical outrage even while delighting an audience surfeited upon moral and improving tales. Moral and improving this is not: it is a story of dreadful crimes, of guilt and innocence, of secrets kept and revealed. It is wildly melodramatic, full of outrageous coincidences and contrivances, frequently humorous and sometimes quite shocking—and always enormous fun. A great deal of the pleasure involved in reading The Trail Of The Serpent comes from an unmistakable sense of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s own enjoyment in her work. You almost get the feeling that she down to write this novel with a checklist before her of taboos she meant to shatter, and conventions she meant to toy with. This is a youthful work—and a fearless one; a story told with remarkable assurance and an energy that carries it over its more improbable moments—which are not few in number.

Indeed, perhaps the most striking thing about The Trail Of The Serpent is Braddon’s willingness to rush in where most female Victorian novelists feared to tread. We have spoken in other contexts of the gendered authorial voice, how sometimes it is evident that a book is written by a woman or by a man, and how sometimes you can’t tell. My feeling about this novel is that, if you didn’t know it was written by a woman, you wouldn’t necessarily guess—although it isn’t so much that Braddon’s voice is “unfeminine”, as that so many scenes in this book take place in rather dubious localities, and display a knowledge of the masculine world that nice women weren’t supposed to have.

Not content with a plot featuring crimal activities of all varieties, Braddon also carries her readers from the ugliest of slums into disreputable taverns and dingy shops, and the tobacco-wreathed, brandy-soaked world of feckless young men; even giving us a vivid word-picture of the morning after a strictly bachelor dinner thrown to celebrate the achievements of a pugilist known to the public as The Left-Handed Smasher.

But while all this deliberate shock-value is certainly one of this its major attractions, I don’t want to give the impression that there is no substance to this novel. Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of The Trail Of The Serpent is that along with its outrageous central tale we are offered some sincere and bitter commentary upon some of the less savoury aspects of Victorian life:

But of course bad influences can only come to bad men; and of course he must be a very bad man whose spirits go up and down with every fluctuation of the weather-glass. Virtuous people no doubt are virtuous always; and by no chance, or change, or trial, or temptation, can they ever become other than virtuous. Therefore why should a wet day or a dark day depress them? No; they look out of the windows at houseless men and women and fatherless and motherless children wet through to the skin, and thank Heaven that they are not as other men: like good Christians, punctual rate-payers, and unflinching church-goers as they are.

We know that in her youth, Braddon was a voracious reader of novels. Like many writers, we find her in her own work reacting to her reading, putting what she has absorbed to her own purposes. In The Trail Of The Serpent, Braddon quite explicitly echoes the work of Charles Dickens—and manages (at least in my opinion) to beat him at his own game.

Furthermore—I have the impression that this influence wasn’t a one-way street. By coincidence, I have recently re-read Our Mutual Friend; and if (as we shall see) The Trail Of The Serpent references Dickens’ earlier works, his final completed novel, which began serialisation in May 1864, seems to me to bear, in outline if not in central plot, a surprising resemblance to Braddon’s breakthrough work. Both tales are centred about a river, and dwell upon its power of life and death; both draw upon the proverbial dichotomy between hanging and drowning; both weave water imagery and themes of death and rebirth through their text. Both novels open with a murder, and deal with assumed identities; the correct social “placing” of a central character is a significant aspect of each plot’s resolution. Both of them feature a foundling with a single, improbable (and suspiciously similar) name. And both of them, while touching occasionally upon the higher reaches of society, deal predominantly with a world stretching from the fringes of gentility down into depths of poverty.

Braddon’s description of life amongst the lowest is one one the most striking and memorable aspects of The Trail Of The Serpent. She expresses no less anger than Dickens over the misery and degradation suffered by the poor, and no less disgust at the capacity of “nice” people simply to ignore it—or blame the victims:

Jabez soon leaves this square behind him, and strolls through two or three narrow, dingy, old-fashioned streets, till he comes to a labyrinth of tumble-down houses, pigstyes, and dog-kennels, known as Blind Peter’s Alley. Who Blind Peter was, or how he came to have this alley—nobody living knew. But if Blind Peter was a myth, the alley was a reality, and a dirty loathsome fetid reality, with regard to which the Board of Health seemed as if smitten with the aforesaid Peter’s own infirmity, ignoring the horror of the place with fatal blindness. So Peter’s was the Alsatia of Slopperton, a refuge for crime and destitution—since destitution cannot pick its company, but must be content often, for the sake of shelter, to jog cheek by jowl with crime. And thus no doubt it is on the strength of that golden adage about birds of a feather that destitution and crime are thought by numerous wise and benevolent persons to mean one and the same thing…

The significant difference between the two is that Braddon never falls into the trap of sentimentalising. Instead, she tends to go to the other extreme, adopting a casual, shrugging tone that is absolutely chilling and, to my mind, far more effective than Dickens’ over-insistence.

Braddon’s poor, left with no choice, live by the banks of her river, the Sloshy, which winds through her novel like an indifferent god, sometimes giving life, more often taking it away:

The Sloshy is not a beautiful river, unless indeed mud is beautiful, for it is very muddy. The Sloshy is a disagreeable kind of compromise between a river and a canal. It is like a canal which (after the manner of the mythic frog that wanted to be an ox) had seen a river, and swelled itself to bursting in imitation thereof. It has quite a knack of swelling and bursting, this Sloshy; it overflows its banks and swallows up a house ot two, or takes an impromptu snack off a few outbuildings, once or twice a year. It is inimical to children, and has been known to suck into its muddy bosom the hopes of divers families; and has afterwards gone down to the distant sea, flaunting on its breast Billy’s straw hat or Johnny’s pinafore, as a flag of triumph for having done a little amateur business for the gentleman on the pale horse…

The Sloshy assists “the gentleman” in another manner, too, being the site of so many suicides—generally of young women, with or without child in arms—that a publican who operates a tavern on its dismal banks has difficulty keeping them all straight in his memory, or even calling to mind one specific suicide, when he is questioned about it.

Braddon’s lack of sentimentality is perhaps also responsible for one of the most curious aspects of The Trail Of The Serpent: it has no heroine. There are female characters, certainly, and several marriages, including those eventually made by the novel’s dual protagonists; but these never become its focus in the way we might expect.

The love-relationship we see most closely is conducted in one of the foullest corners of Slopperton, between a dying young man called Jim Lomax and a factory girl known as Sillikins (she has another name, but no-one uses it). We can imagine what Dickens might have done with such a situation, but Braddon is made of sterner stuff. She does marvel briefly that such a love should have flowered on the dunghill of Slopperton; but when she loses her Jim, Sillinkins does nothing so predicatably romantic as dying of a broken heart. Instead, she does what real people do: she goes on with her life, be it ever so weary. We meet the girl again, a few years later, still dragging through an existence of grinding misery, and worse off than ever, having made herself responsible for Jim’s grandmother, a frightful, drunken harridan. These moments of pragmatism embedded in the overall extravagance of this novel’s plot invariably catch and hold the attention.

But in one of The Trail Of The Serpent‘s central characters, Jabez North, Braddon raises anti-sentimentality to the level of an artform. Jabez is a rare survivor of the Sloshy, being pulled from its mud as a baby; his mother wasn’t so fortunate. Jabez is first seen as a respectable young man employed as an usher in a school in the town of Slopperton-on-the-Sloshy; an individual offered up as proof of the wisdom and effectiveness of Slopperton’s approach to dealing with the poor. The more we see of Jabez, however, the more apparent it becomes that if, at the back-end of his career, Charles Dickens did find himself borrowing from a rising young novelist, then that the rising young novelist returned the favour in spades—but did so with what I’m tempted to call malice aforethought.

It seems impossible to interpret Jabez North as anything other than a deliberately conceived anti-Oliver Twist. The background and experience of the two are almost identical, right down to the odd name bestowed by “charitable” officialdom; but while Dickens insists upon Oliver emerging from his childhood ordeal unscathed in his essentials, Braddon contends that this is not possible.

Now there are many natures (God-created though they be) of so black and vile a tendency as to be soured by workhouse treatment; by constant keeping down; by days and days which grow into years and years, in which to hear a kind word is to hear a strange language… Some natures too may be so weak and sentimental as to sicken at a life without one human tie; a boyhood without father or mother; a youth without sister or brother. Not such the excellent nature of Jabez North. Tyranny found him meek, it is true, but it left him much meeker. Insult found him mild, but it left him lamb-like. Scornful speeches glanced away from him; cruel words seemed drops of water on marble, so powerless were they to strike or wound… He was a good young man; a benelovent young man; giving in secret, and generally getting his reward openly. His left hand scarcely knew what his right hand did…

Such is the public face of Jabez North, soon revealed to the reader as an angry and damaged individual; a practised liar and hypocrite; a career criminal in the making. The very first chapter of The Trail Of The Serpent – titled “The Good Schoolmaster” – confronts us with just how daring Mary Elizabeth Braddon could be. After our ironic introduction to Jabez, we watch him slip secretly from his schoolhouse bedroom after dark…and return some time later with bloody hands, muttering furiously that, “It was all for nothing!” There is a witness to Jabez’s return, a small, sick boy left in his care, who cries out in terror at the sight of the blood. It is true that the boy is feverish and delirious, and probably would not be believed; but Jabez isn’t a man who leaves loose ends. He mixes a does of opium—a very strong dose—and having administered it to the boy by force, sets about destroying the evidence of his night-time excursion:

Then Jabez North sets to work to wash his hands. A curious young man, with curious fashions for doing things—above all, a curious fashion of washing his hands. He washes them very carefully in a small quantity of water, and when they are quite clean, and the water has become a dark and ghastly colour, he drinks it…

Jabez’s victim is Montague Harding, recently returned from India to relieve his sister from the financial woes brought on by the selfishness and irresponsibility of her son, Richard Marwood. As it happens, a chastened Richard, physically ill and with barely a penny left to his name, has chosen this very night to return, prodigal-like, to his mother’s roof. A combination of circumstances—including Richard being found some distance from his home the next morning, in possession of his uncle’s money—point to him as the murderer, and he is arrested and brought to trial. Indeed, so convinced are the police—the senior police—of Richard’s guilt that they investigate no further. We learn, much later, that if they had looked, they would have found evidence to support his story, and point to the real killer.

Slopperton is all agog over the matter; not that violent death is all that rare an event in those charming environs:

There had not been since the last general election, when George Augustus Slashington, the Liberal member, had been returned against strong Conservative opposition, in a blaze of triumph and a shower of rotten eggs and cabbage-stumps—there had not been since that day such excitement in Slopperton as there was on the discovery of the murder of Mr Montague Harding. A murder was always a great thing for Slopperton. When John Boggins, weaver, beat out the brains of Sarah his wife, first with the heel of his clog and ultimately with a poker, Slopperton had a great deal to say about it—though, of course, the slaughter of one “hand” by another was no great thing…

The circumstantial evidence is strong against Richard, and he is convicted of the murder; but (for reasons we shall return to presently) he is not condemned to be hanged, but confined in a lunatic asylum—where the novel leaves him for eight soul-scarring years. He survives partly through sheer grim endurance, and partly because he feels he deserves punishment. Richard is no innocent: if not guilty of murder, he is guilty of making his unoffending mother’s life miserable, and one of financial hardship, over a period of years. (We note in passing that his period of imprisonment is almost exactly the same length as his career of prodigality.)

The excitement of the trial over, the world at large promptly forgets about Richard Marwood; all except for his long-suffering mother, a handful of loyal friends—and a single, powerful ally.

With his unjust conviction and subsequent incarceration, Richard is the sympathy figure in The Trail Of The Serpent, but he is certainly not its hero. This title rightly belongs to Mr Joseph Peters, Joe to his friends, who is not only in all likelihood Victorian literature’s first working-class hero, but also its first hero with a disability: for Joe is mute, capable of communicating directly with only the few individuals who understand his particular form of sign language, in which he uses his fingers to spell out the letters of the alphabet.

One of those who can understand him is Richard, who learned the language as a child’s game (and used it to communicate with the girl next door); and when he sees Joe, a lowly policeman, signing to his detective-superior the words N-O-T G-U-I-L-T-Y—and when Joe realises that he is understood—it forges a bond between the two that will, ultimately, see Richard a vindicated man, and Montague Harding’s true murderer brought to justice.

Braddon’s handling of Joe’s communications is cleverly done. At first she makes it painstakingly clear that Joe needs an interpretor, that he can only “talk” directly if someone understands his signing and can translate for him; but as the novel proceeds she lets these moments fade away, secure that the reader understands the situation and her use of the expression “said Joe”.

Joe’s disability cuts both ways. At the time when we meet him is nothing more than a minor functionary, the dogsbody of a detective who treats him with contempt for his supposed stupidity (rather in the spirit of raising your voice when speaking to “a foreigner”), and kept down because of it. Sometimes, however, his muteness works in Joe’s favour—as, for instance, when Jabez North makes the fatal assumption that because Joe is dumb, he is also deaf, and on that assumption, utters in his presence some careless words that fix him in Joe’s mind as the likely murderer of Montague Harding.

This encounter takes place in that pub on the Sloshy, known as “The Bargeman’s Delight” (the narrative pauses for a bewildered moment to ponder what “the” bargeman’s delight could possibly be), where Jabez is reluctantly meeting with his discarded mistress—and his bastard son. The unfortunate woman has given up on Jabez’s promises of marriage, and by the end of an ugly scene has literally thrown his money back in his face. When she leaves she is heading for the river. Joe, torn between his desire to pursue Jabez and his fear of the woman’s intentions, follows her out but loses her in the fog. He reaches the banks of the Sloshy too late to save the woman, but (in one of this novel’s many ironic instances of history repeating) pulls the baby from the river’s muddy grasp.

There will be no workhouse for this child, however: Joe takes him home, hiring a housekeeper-nanny, a local girl called Kuppins, to help care for him, and bestowing upon him the sobriquet “Sloshy”. As this, or as simply “Slosh”, he is known for the duration.

Mute himself, Joe takes great joy and pride in his adopted son’s powerful lungs (just as well, as it turns out). Fatherhood also breeds ambition in our Joe, who sees that he must “get on” in his chosen career, in order to provide properly for the child:

    Mr Peters has risen in his profession since last February. He has assisted at the discovery of two or three robberies, and has evinced on those occasions such a degree of tact, triumphing so completely over the difficulties he labours under from his infirmity, as to have won for himself a better place in the police force of Slopperton—and of course a better salary. But business has been dull lately, and Mr Joseph Peters, who is ambitious, has found no proper field for his abilities as yet.
    “I should like an iron-safe case, a regular out-and-out burglary,” he muses, “or a good forgery, say to the tune of a thousand or so. Or a bit of bigamy; that would be something new. But a jolly good poisoning case might make my fortune…”

(What we have here is one of Braddon’s little jokes: in the course of his spectacular career, Jabez North will be guilty of robbery, forgery, bigamy and poisoning…among other things.)

From the moment of Richard Marwood’s arrest, Joe is doubtful of his guilt. For one thing, when apprehended, Richard showed no fear or even concern (he later explains that he thought he was being arrested for debt, an all-too-familiar experience); indeed, he showed no strong emotion of any kind, until his uncle’s violent death was mentioned—which, as Joe sees clearly enough, comes as a terrible shock to him. Unable to get anyone to listen to him, Joe does all he can for Richard by advising him and his barrister to take a particular course of action, one conveyed in the courtroom via Joe’s busy fingers. At the time we learn only that there is a message of “seven letters”, though we infer from the outcome what those letters suggested: S-H-A-M M-A-D.

With Richard’s life secure, albeit at the cost of his incarceration, Joe is free to follow his suspicions of Jabez—but this line of inquiry comes to a shocking and unexpected conclusion when, on the way home after an outing with Kuppins and Sloshy, Joe finds the body of a man sprawled dead upon the heath, a vial of opium clasped in one hand… Inquiry confirms that this is Jabez North; and although he has gone to his ultimate judgement, his doing so leaves Richard in limbo.

But Joe Peters is not a man to give up on his friends. It takes a full eight years, but finally circumstances allow him to mastermind Richard’s escape from the lunatic asylum, and in a manner that prevents official pursuit, since it seems that Richard has become one of the Sloshy’s many victims. Reunited with his loyal mother, and the band of friends who were Joe’s co-conspirators, Richard is profoundly grateful for his freedom but bitter that Jabez’s death means that he will never be able fully to clear his name—and must indeed go through life behind an assumed identity.

As a reward for his rescuing of—and belief in—Richard, Mrs Marwood settles upon Joe an annuity of one hundred pounds. Now a man of means, Joe moves his household to London and resigns from the police force—but never for a moment does he stop being a detective. Joe is showing young Sloshy the many sights in their new home when he happens to catch a glimpse of a man leaving his palatial mansion: a glimpse that rocks the generally imperturbable Joe to his very core. The world may say of this man that he is Raymond, the Count de Marolles, a Parisian nobleman and nephew-by-marriage of the fabulously wealthy Marquis de Cervannes, but to Joe’s eyes he is none other than Jabez North—Jabez North, who Joe last saw lying dead upon a heath outside Slopperton…

And he is, of course, even more than that:

At last, to the considerable inconvenience of the passers-by, the detective makes a dead stop, and says, “I’m glad you think him han’some, Slosh; and I’m glad you thinks him easy, which, all things considered, he is, uncommon. In fact, I’m glad he meets your views as far as personal appearance goes, because, between you and me, Slosh, that man’s your father.”

Many and varied, and generally successful, have been the schemes of Jabez North; and he has reached the very peak of his ambition when he is confronted by Nemesis in the unlikely shape of Joe Peters…

Many and varied, as I say, are the schemes of Jabez North; many and varied too the pleasures of The Trail Of The Serpent, of which I have (honestly!) touched on only a few; enough to encourage people to hunt a copy down, I hope. In spite of all I’ve said, there are at least two other major subplots that I’ve barely alluded to here—and that’s not even counting perhaps the most disturbing subplot of all (at least to modern sensibilities), that of the boy Sloshy who, with his disconcertingly handsome face, his slight, underdeveloped body, and his preternatural intelligence, represents a fierce and ongoing battle between nature and nurture…

The Trail Of The Serpent, as we now know it, began life in another form—as a novel serialised early in 1860 under the title Three Times Dead. Although it was not a success, it caught the attention of the publisher, John Maxwell, who encouraged and helped Mary Elizabeth Braddon to re-work it into the form in which it was reissued later the same year. How great were the changes made, and how much John Maxwell contributed, we do not know for certain. What we do know is that, no doubt assisted by canny promotion by Maxwell, The Trail Of The Serpent sold one thousand copies in the first week of its release, and launched its author upon a long and successful, if controversial, career.

13/07/2012

The sensational Miss Braddon

Off-blog, I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately; not merely Golden Age, but Silver and Bronze as well. And since I’m apparently genetically incapable of simply reading anything, this side-hobby has turned into an investigation into the evolution of the detective novel. The fact that the majority of mystery novelists took pride in the accuracy of their stories makes these early novels a fascinating repository of information about the process of law and the state of criminal investigation in both Britain and the States at the time of their publication. Did you know, for example, that although the technique was officially adopted at the turn of the century in England, it was well into the 1920s before fingerprints were widely employed as an investigative tool in America?

Inevitably, this course of steady-ish reading has also found me creeping ever further backwards, trying to determine “the first” detective novel on both sides of the Atlantic—an exercise in wading in intriguingly muddy waters. It is evident that the detective story, that is, the short story that dominated this school of fiction through the second half of the 19th century, and the detective novel evolved down two quite distinct pathways; and while the latter was necessarily influenced by the former, it did not grow out of it. Instead, the detective novel was an offshoot of the sensation novel, which appeared as a recognisable genre during the 1850s.

It is easy enough to see how this came about: the sensation novel was often about a central mystery, the unravelling of a dark secret by circumstances; all that was required was for an individual, either amateur or professional, to devote himself—or herself—to the deliberate pursuit of a secret. Understandably, then, in the early days the line between “the mystery novel” and “the detective novel” is drawn in shades of grey. “Detectives”, as a recognisable real-life entity, were still becoming established; and the ambivalence of the public towards these professional investigators is very clear in the literature of the day, where they tend to be viewed as a necessary but distasteful phenomenon. This is particularly reflected in the tendency of early detective novels to be set amongst the middle- and upper-classees, with the investigation itself often regarded as an outrageous invasion of privacy, and in which the identity of the guilty party is as likely to be hushed up to avoid a scandal as exposed in open court. (Climactic suicide is popular.)

In America, the first detective novel was long held to be Anna Katharine Green’s The Leavenworth Case, from 1878, in which a police detective recruits a gentlemanly young lawyer as his assistant specifically because, as a gentleman, he has access to people and places that the working-class policeman does not. However, while it might rightly be regarded as the first modern detective novel, The Leavenworth Case is not the first per se, an honour held by Metta Fuller Victor’s The Dead Letter, published in 1866. This murder mystery does indeed feature a professional private detective, who is associated with the police but not of the police, but betrays its sensation novel roots by having the detective assisted by his clairvoyant young daughter. Victor followed The Dead Letter with The Figure Eight, which has a young man turning amateur detective in order to clear his own name, after being accused of the robbery-homicide of his uncle. He eventually succeeds in solving the robbery, while the murderer is exposed in sensation novel terms, via a subplot involving somnambulism.

Meanwhile, over the pond, the dogma is wrong again (as dogma is with remarkable regularity). Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, published in 1868 and featuring Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard, has long been considered “the first English detective novel” (even though the detective doesn’t solve the crime). Recently, however, the good people at the British Library have unearthed and reprinted The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix (aka Charles Warren Adams), which was serialised in 1862 and then published in book form in 1863, and features a startling number of the features we associate with modern detective fiction, including the use of chemical analysis.

Of course, no sooner was this rediscovered novel trumpeted as “the first” than a number of still earlier contenders for the title were offered up by interested parties—the most cogent challenge, or so it seems to me, coming from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Trail Of The Serpent, published in 1860.

M. E. Braddon is a novelist for whom I have enormous affection and admiration; a talented novelist whose choice of the sensation novel as her preferred vehicle has tended to overshadow her very real abilities. And while I need another reading-thread like a hole in the head, I have taken her appearance at this critical juncture in my off-blog reading as a sign that I should promote her to Authors In Depth.

So!—I will be starting with The Trail Of The Serpent, before (at some point) stepping back to look at her first, long-forgotten novel, The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana.

Behind the sensation novelist who attracted both praise and outrage for her choice of material was a woman who, in Victorian terms, lived a life still more outrageous and shocking. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s parents separated when she was still a child, she and her brother and sister remaining with their mother. (Braddon’s brother, Edward, who possibly deserves a biography of his own, was Premier of Tasmania from 1894 – 1899.) The separation was amicable, and for some years Henry Braddon continued to support his family; but the Braddon finances had always been rocky, and finally the money stopped coming.

To help support her family, Mary Braddon began to write short stories. At the same time, at the age of only seventeen, she began a career on the stage under the name “Mary Seyton”, and found some success, albeit mostly in provincial companies. While touring, she continued to write and publish, trying her hand at plays and poetry as well as fiction. In 1859, her first attempt at a novel, The Octoroon, was serialised, and she gave up acting to concentrate on writing.

In 1860, a second novel, Three Times Dead, was serialised. It was not a success with the public, but it brought Braddon to the attention of the publisher, John Maxwell, who had already published several of Braddon’s short stories in his magazines. Inspite of its flaws, in Three Times Dead Maxwell recognised a talent worth cultivating, and he offered to help her revise the text. Reworked as The Trail Of The Serpent, Braddon’s second novel found an appreciative audience and some critical attention. She continued with her novel-writing, and 1862 published Lady Audley’s Secret, a cause célèbre of the first order. From that notorious pinnacle, she never looked back. In 1866, using her own profits and with John Maxwell’s encouragement, she founded the Belgravia Magazine, an affordable vehicle for serialised novels, poems, travel narratives, biographies, and essays on fashion, history and science.

Meanwhile, Braddon’s private life was following a path every bit as scandalous as her novels.

The attraction between Mary Elizabeth Braddon and John Maxwell was almost instantaneous, but Maxwell was already married—in a manner of speaking: his first wife (also Mary, uncomfortably enough) had suffered a severe mental breakdown some years earlier, and as a consequence had been institutionalised for a period of time, leaving Maxwell with the care of their six children. Under the laws of the day, a divorce was out of the question. In 1861, Braddon and Maxwell began living together unmarried.

I like to think of Mary Elizabeth Braddon as the sensation novel’s answer to George Eliot. Only George Eliot didn’t write better than eighty novels while raising twelve children.

As soon as she moved into his house, Braddon took over the care of Maxwell’s existing family (disproving all the step-motherly myths in the process, it seems), and over the following years bore seven children of her own, of which six survived. One of them, William Babbington Maxwell, born in 1866, would eventually follow in his mother’s footsteps by becoming a prolific and popular novelist. In 1874, the tragic Mary Maxwell died in Dublin. As soon as they decently could, Braddon and Maxwell got married—and the former’s novels began to be trumpeted as “—by MRS MAXWELL.” Amusingly, it didn’t stick: Braddon was by then far too famous, not to say infamous, under her maiden name.

For all of her success, there is still some uncertainty over exactly how many novels Braddon did write. Remarkably, in spite of her popular and financial success amongst the middle- and upper-classes, with Maxwell’s encouragement Braddon continued to write (albeit pseudonymously) for magazines aimed at the working-classes. In recent years a great deal of scholarly effort has gone into unearthing and preserving these hitherto unrecognised works, and is still ongoing.

There are, however, plenty of novels by Mary Elizabeth Braddon for us to be going on with in the meantime.

10/07/2012

The Deserted Wife (Part 3)

Days passed. Raymond now only too surely, terribly felt that his love for Rosalia was no longer pure brotherly affection. It was an intense and absorbing passion. He began to struggle against its nearly overwhelming power—he began to avoid the charming girl. Now could Hagar have trusted him; could she have believed in the power of redeeming qualities that really existed in his heart; the solid substratum of good that lay beneath this superficial alluvium of wilfulness and effeminacy; her faith might yet have saved him; saved herself from much anguish. As it was, Raymond struggled on alone against the advancing power of his great temptation. He might have struggled longer, he might have struggled successfully, but that the very means he took accelerated the crisis, the catastrophe. He began to avoid Rosalia; declined her music; evaded her questions; repulsed her gentle attentions, until the guileless girl, utterly unable to comprehend her position, grew wretched, more wretched every day, in the thought that her last friend, her only present friend, as in her heart she began to style Raymond, had fallen from her; and by the fatality that makes us set a higher value upon a possession that is passing away, Rosalia began to prize his affection exzceedingly—to desire its continuance more than all things—to lament its seeming loss passionately—to strive to win it back.


The Deserted Wife
, as I remarked at the outset, is a terribly uncomfortable book—uncomfortable in many different ways. As was the case in Retribution—as may well be the case in all of E.D.E.N. Southworth’s novels—there is a kernel of hard emotional truth behind all the melodrama and exaggeration and contrivance that makes it impossible to dismiss this novel as “just” an entertainment or a cheap thrill. The emotional abuse of Hagar by Raymond, like Ernest Dent’s transferance of his own guilt onto his innocent wife in the earlier novel, is convincing in a way that suggests only too clearly that Southworth is writing from her own experience; and while this is bad enough, hard enough for the reader to take, the discomforting power of this story is amplified by the impossibility of pinning down the novel’s attitude towards its beleagured heroine.

On the surface, at least, The Deserted Wife takes no issue with the prevailing 19th century view of marriage, which demanded of the wife that she subsume her own desires, wants and preferences in her husband’s, and which placed the entire responsibility for the success or failure of a marriage upon the woman: if it failed, it was because she had not done her duty. Taken to its extreme, it was a convention that essentially resulted in the woman ceasing to have any meaningful individual identity. There are plenty of Victorian novels that do indeed accept this convention without question, and are pretty hard to swallow as a consequence; but I’m not sure that The Deserted Wife isn’t harder for its smothered note of rebellion, which suggests that E.D.E.N. Southworth was caught between feelings of resentment and guilt, her anger at being blamed for the failure of her marriage battling with her fear that it was indeed all her fault.

It is Southworth’s use of this novel as a vehicle for working through her feelings that is behind its extremely peculiar tone—and for what amounts to a distressing lack of sympathy for Hagar, upon whom her creator bestows all of her own least desirable traits and emotions, and whose unhappiness is repeatedly declared to be her own fault, for her inability to control her passions, and for her struggle against the absolute necessity of submitting in all things to her husband. So far, Southworth seems entirely in sympathy with society’s judgement against herself.

And yet—and yet— What are we to make of the fact that “society’s judgement” is invariably conveyed via Sophie?—Sophie, whose idea of a good time is subjecting her will to that of a dangerous lunatic for the better part of ten years; Sophie, thrilled by the prospect of demonstrating her love for her second husband by a complete spiritual prostration:

    “I love my husband so much, so much, so much, with a fulness of tenderness that it seems to me could not be expressed, except by suffering something—sacrificing something for his sake. I am sure sometimes I wish me would ask me to do something naturally repugnant to my feelings, that I might have one opportunity of showing how much I do love; to give up my dearest wish for his pleasure would give me exquisite joy—a joy that I crave. I do not compehend this, dear, but it is so.”
    “Oh, I comprehend it, Sophie, perfectly; it is the very same principle that led the saints ages ago to scourge and starve themselves to testify their love to God—God forgive them the blasphemy! You, Sophie, have a propensity to worship, and a very decided vocation for martyrdom, which, unfortunately, under existing circumstances, I have not!” sneered the scornful girl.

One does wonder who 19th century readers sympathised with here.

This is only one of many clashes between Sophie and Hagar on the subject of marital duty, in which Sophie is unshakably on the side of Raymond. One long lecture on Hagar’s unavoidable duties, and her myriad of failings (Hagar’s involuntary protest, that Raymond knew all that before he married her, is waved away as irrelevant), bad enough at first reading, becomes increasingly chilling in retrospect, as we come to an ever deeper understanding of just what submission to Raymond entails:

“I see,” said she, “it is your pride, Hagar…it is your pride, love, that rebels against a rule every way gentle, just, and reasonable. Subdue it, Hagar. Your husband has been educated among the refinements of cultivated city society. He, himself, perhaps, among the most fastidious of that class. His taste is offended, his delicacy shocked by your wildness… He loves you, Hagar—has loved you long… He loved you—let me speak plainly, Hagar, for your sake and his—he loved you when you were a very unlovely child—at least to every one but me.—Well, he loved you, and sought and gained your love. You gave yourself away to him, and now he naturally expects you to conform your manners to his taste… Your pride must be subdued—it must: If you do not subdue it yourself, he will, with cruel pain to you. Raymond’s demands are all reasonable; such requirements are usual—in your case any man would make them…”

The reader, unlike Sophie, is given a good, long, clear-eyed look at Raymond’s “reasonable” demands and his “gentle, just and reasonable rule”. The marriage, indeed, quickly settles into a series of ugly skirmishes in which Raymond seeks out and invariably finds the points at which Hagar is most vulnerable, striking with merciless accuracy, forcing her to give way to him in matters that cause her the greatest possible pain. Most cruelly of all, perhaps, Raymond takes it into his head that it is “degrading” to have to share Hagar’s affections with her beloved horse and dogs—Hagar is understandably astonished, since not a word of these offended feelings did Raymond breathe before their marriage; she should have interpreted his silence, he tells her in all seriousness—and sells them behind her back. Small wonder that Hagar is unable to hide her bewildered misery from interested eyes; another affront to her husband:

    Hagar felt her arm grasped tightly from behind, and Raymond’s voice in her ear, muttering low and quickly, “You are making your well-merited wretchedness apparent to Sophie—be more natural; for as God in heaven hears me, if by word, look or gesture you reveal your miseries, making me a subject of speculation to these people—you shall suffer for it in every nerve in your body to the last day of your life,” and he let go her arm.
    “Dearest Raymond, how could you think that I would willingly betray uneasiness—have I been gloomy? I will be so no longer—you shall see—dear Raymond, smile on me—say one gentle word to me; my heart has been starving—even the bitter bread was welcome—give me a sweet word, Raymond!”
    “Don’t be ridiculous,” were the sweet words granted to her prayer…

By this time great changes have taken place in the lives of our characters. Sophie has married Augustus Wilde and lives with him on board the store ship under his command; Gusty May and Rosalia are engaged, although in respect of her youth (and, perhaps, her aunt’s doubts of the true nature of her feelings), no early marriage will be permitted. To Gusty’s dismay, his manoeuvring fails to secure him duty on the Rainbow, and he receives orders for a three-year cruise on another ship. In increasing desperation, Gusty spends his last days of leave trying to win some sign from Rosalia that she does, in fact, love him above all others, and is nearly driven to distraction by her calm serenity and her failure to understand his importunities. A good friend of Gusty’s, Midshipman Murphy, sympathising, uses his connections to get their postings swapped; he takes the three-year duty in the Mediterranean, and Gusty gets the Rainbow after all. In the full flow of his gratitude, Gusty (as he is wont to do) blurts out his troubles:

“Love me? Yes, she does. She loves her old, poor blind nurse Cumbo—uncle’s Newfoundland dog, Juno, and me in about the same proportions, and in the same manner… She will caress me right before her aunt’s face, freely and calmly as though I were her grandmother… Yet she tells me she loves me! Oh, yes, she loves me! and the next minute she will throw her arms around Juno’s neck and tell her she loves her! and with equal fervour. And if I ever complain to her that she does not love me, she weeps as though I did her an injury. Nearly three months here have I spent trying to kindle one spark, to touch one chord of responsive passion in her bosom. I have poured my whole sould firth at her feet, and she looks at me with her calm, sweet eyes and wonders at me…”

For all Gusty’s forthcomingness, one thing he does keep to himself: an uncomfortable belief, real or conjured up by his jealous fears, that the one time her ever did see a different light in Rosalia’s blank calm, sweet eyes, they were resting on Raymond…

Meanwhile, Heath Hall has been closed up, and Raymond and Hagar have moved to his villa on the banks of the Hudson River, three days’ travel from New York City; an inheritance from his paternal grandfather, General Raymond. To her dismay, Hagar finds it stiflingly over-decorated and, if anything, overstocked with servants; she is left with nothing to do all day but, as Raymond puts it, to “cultivate her beauty”. It soon becomes clear that the household is run on a scale far beyond the couple’s slender means, which are supplemented by Raymond accepting, albeit reluctantly, a teaching position at a nearby college. Hagar tries to remonstrate, arguing that all this display is unnecessary—indeed, she finds it personally distasteful—but of course Raymond is uninterested in her feelings. He has, he insists, “a constitutional love and necessity of luxury.”

And Hagar submits—not only because she must, but because her thoughts are concentrated elsewhere: she gives birth to twin girls, Agatha and Agnes; black-haired like their mother, beautiful like their father. Motherhood opens up in Hagar new and unexpected depths of emotion—feelings much gentler, although no less passionate, than she has experienced before. And in Hagar’s absolute devotion to her babies, Raymond is quick to recognise a much greater threat to his dominance over his wife than any posed before. His jealousy and resentment of Hagar’s absorption in her children are, we realise, of the same nature but upon a different scale from that he felt towards her pets. In this case, of course, he can’t sell the babies behind Hagar’s back (we occasionally get the feeling he would if he dared); instead, he decides that Hagar is ruining her health and her looks—not necessarily in that order—by nursing the children herself, and that it must stop. Holding over Hagar’s head the threat of sending the children away altogether by “putting them out to nurse”, Raymond manages to impose upon her a hired wet-nurse and restricted access each day to the babies, which are removed from the master-bedroom to a distant nursery.

(Translation: Raymond wants sexual access to his wife again.)

This war is still being fought and lost when a letter arrives for Hagar (which Raymond opens, as is mentioned in passing) announcing that Sophie, Augustus, Gusty and Rosalia will be coming for a visit. Augustus has himself been ordered to the Mediterranean, and Sophie is to accompany him—but Rosalia, never quite having gotten over her terrors of the sea, is to be left behind with either Raymond and Hagar, or Emily Buncombe. Raymond insists upon the former…

Here, too, we must wrestle with this novel’s tendency to put the bulk of the blame upon its heroine—or to look as if it is doing so. I can’t quite believe that Southworth intends us to take all this at face value, or perhaps I just don’t want to. She does, in fact, spread the blame around to an extent. Raymond is criticised for the self-indulgence that has become a habit, almost an addiction, the “moral lethargy” that robs him of the strength to put right before desire; and even Rosalia comes in for her share—her tenderness unsupported by strength of principle, heart unprotected by mind.

But finally the finger points at Hagar who, confronted by the nightmare vision that has blighted her whole life, the sight of Rosalia stealing love away from her, gives in to a bitter, uncontrolled, uncontrollable jealousy, which springs into being and shows itself before there is any concrete cause, and thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, frightening Rosalia and driving her to Raymond for comfort and, in and of itself—or so we are told—putting the idea of Rosalia into Raymond’s head.

This is, indeed, the final conclusion: Hagar is to blame for what happens, because she does not really trust her husband as a wife should. After all—husbands don’t cheat on wives who trust them – right?

(While debating within myself just how far Southworth actually intends this sincerely, I can’t help remembering that in Retribution, Hester Dent trusted her husband and her best friend absolutely – and look what happened to her.)

Raymond does, in fact, struggle against the tide, albeit feebly; while Rosalia doesn’t even realise what’s happening until the crisis point is reached:

    “Tell me! just tell me how I have offended you all, Raymond! Oh! I am so unhappy! so lonesome—no one loves me now! tell me why?” She laid her soft hand upon her arm, and, bending forward, looked up in his face with her tender and coaxing gaze.
    The effect was electrical! Turning, he suddenly caught and strained her to his bosom, exclaiming, “My flower! my dove! my lamb! my angel! Rose! oh, Rose!” and pressing burning kisses upon her brow and lips between every breath and word. “Love you! I love you; more than life, sould, Heaven, God! Love you! my joy, my destiny! love you! let me have you and die! give yourself to me, and the next hour let me die, die!”

Rosalia is horrified and frightened by what has happened and tries to evade the consequences by leaving , but her will is nothing compared to Raymond’s, and she finds herself a party to an illicit elopement almost against her own volition. A concurrence of circumstances favours the joint disappearance: Rosalia is supposed to be travelling to stay with Emily Buncombe, where Gusty eagerly awaits her; Raymond has accepted an appointment to a consulate in Europe (a three-year appointment, as he calmly announces to an hysterical Hagar, explaining that she and the children will naturally stay where they are). The two are gone before anyone realises it. Raymond does indeed write to both Hagar and to Mrs Buncombe, blowing smoke in both directions; but he fails to deceive Gusty, seeing with the hawk-like eyes of jealousy (not, apparently, such a terrible thing in a man as it is in a woman). Without a word of explanation to his bewildered mother, who has not absorbed a single hint of the truth of the situation, he sets out to see Hagar—and finds devastation.

For Hagar has not only been deserted by her husband, she has been left without any means of support; not merely destitute, but deeply in debt, thanks to Raymond’s extravagance; with no prospect of an income, and two babies to care for, and pregnant…

An exchange of letters then takes place between Gusty and his mother, which are offered without editorialisation:

From Gusty:

“Mother, come quickly to Hagar. The servants are all leaving the house, because there is no money to pay them their wages. I have exceeded my furlough. I do not know what will be the consequence, and cannot help it. I am cited to appear before a court martial—cannot do it, of course. The devil himself would not leave Hagar in her present situation. Thank God! I have a few thousand dollars in bank, and that will keep the wolf from Hagar’s door for some years to come, any how! Oh, mother! do come quickly. Hagar is still confined to her bed—she wants a lady with her—a friend with her…”

From Mrs Buncombe:

    “Gusty! Is this the way in which you repay all my care of you? Return immediately to your post, as you value my blessing. Do you not know, wretched boy, that you run the risk of having your commission taken away from you? Do you not know, oh! dolt of a child, that you will be scandalized to death, if you remain a day where you are? and all the servants leaving the house, too! Oh, Heavens, Gusty! am I who never risked the chance of a breath of calumny, am I now to suffer through the imprudence of my son?…
    “As to my coming to Hagar, it is not possible just now; Buncombe has the rheumatism, and baby is cutting her eye-teeth; besides which Kitty has scalded her hand so badly as to be nearly useless—so that you see I am the sole dependence of the family.
    “This unhappy Hagar had ever possessed the uneviable gift of drawing down upon her head the ban of society—but she must not pull others down with her…”

Gusty—dear Gusty, I can only say along with his creator—looks both professional ruin and his mother’s horror square in the face and stays where he is. When Hagar is able to travel, he escorts her and the babies back to Heath Hall, the only place she now has the right or the will to call home. The journey takes place in brutal mid-winter, and after disembarking from their boat the travellers are unable to reach the house, but are forced to pass a night in a fishing-hut near the river: an involuntary impropriety that will have evil consequences in the future. In the morning Gusty hires horses, and the party reaches the Hall safely—where Hagar is greeted by Starlight, her horse, and Romulus and Remus, her pointers, who collectively made life so miserable for their new owners – the Gardiner Greens – that they turned the dogs loose, and sold Starlight back to Gusty. Having seen Hagar settled and safe with the servants who were left to care for the Hall, old Cumbo and Tarquin (or “Tarquinius Superbus”, to give him his correct title), Gusty departs to face the music. And there—solitary and neglected, the fodder for neighbourhood gossip—Hagar gives birth to her third child, a son.

In the long term Hagar must, of course, find some way of earning a living for herself and her children—and no, she doesn’t do it as a writer—what made you think that? Hagar’s one “indoor gift” is her music, her singing; and she plots a careful, stepwise course to a career as a concert performer, assuming a false name, and winning a reputation both for the power of her voice and the strict morality of her conduct, which attracts almost as much attention. Indeed, there is no-one in her new life that has the privilege of saying they “know” this intriguing celebrity: she appears, she performs, she retreats behind high walls, she sees no callers, she admits no admirers…

And where are our other characters in the meantime?

Frankly, I’d like nothing better than to be able to tell you that the boat carrying Raymond and Rosalia sank with all hands lost, and that after a suitable period Gusty and Hagar got married and lived happily ever after; but in the novels of E.D.E.N. Southworth, we do not really expect anything so simple—or convenient—or pleasant.

Instead, we find our cast scattered about the world, trying to stay in contact via an uncertain mail service. For Augustus and Sophie, this means trying to make sense at a great distance of ambiguous letters from Raymond, which at one time seem to be promising to escort Rosalia back to them, at another, that he is in search of Rosalia, who has vanished… Augustus is away on duty, and Sophie alone, when she receives a still more staggering letter from a lawyer in America, who used to represent Sophie’s sister and brother-in-law. The occasion is Rosalia’s eighteenth birthday; the letter is to reveal a long-held secret: that Rosalia was not, in fact, the biological child of the Aguilars, but was adopted; her mother was an inmate of a lunatic asylum, who called herself Fanny Raymond…

Ah, the incest card!—where would sensation novelists be without it?

Well…

I am compelled, at this point, although not without certain feelings of admiration, to accuse E.D.E.N. Southworth of disingenous conduct.

The fact of the matter is that, although she delays the revelation for as long as possible, Southworth is finally forced to come clean, and admit to the reader that the affair between Raymond and Rosalia never goes any further than that first passionate embrace. She accounts for this well enough in terms of Rosalia’s remorse and fear (combined, though she does not say so outright, with the cramped shipboard accommodations, which hardly lend themselves to adulterous seduction); yet in a corner of my mind I have a vision of her opening her eyes wide in mock-shock at her readers and their dirty minds: “Good heavens, no! I never meant any such thing!”

It is to her credit, I suppose, that she resisted the temptation of playing with her readers even more, and separates her illicit lovers altogether before further dropping the incest bombshell.

Though Rosalia’s consciousness of wrongdoing make her equally fearful of facing Hagar or Emily Buncombe, which in turn makes her give in weakly to Raymond’s persuasions, she spends the entire journey to Europe facing what she has done, and working up sufficient courage to run away from her would-be seducer. Her flight being facilitated by the fact that Raymond hardly expects either determination or careful plotting from her, Rosalia succeeds in escaping both him and Genoa, where they land, and where he has his consular appointment. She has, of course, no money and nowhere in particular to go; her only thought is away, and she goes away as far and as long as she can before collapsing at the side of the road and being discovered, and taken in, by (in the novel’s one really outrageous twist) no less a person than—as it is spelled out for us—Her Royal Highness, Maria Louisa, Grand Duchess of Parma. Delighted with the girl’s beauty and gentle manners, the Duchess makes a companion out of her; and so it is that some time later, Rosalia just happens to be a member of a concert party that gathers to hear a new, celebrated singer, touring Europe after winning her reputation in America…

And Raymond? At first, unused to being thwarted, unable to bear being so, he takes Rosalia’s flight as an affront that he cannot and will not tolerate. He becomes obsessed with finding her, plotting ways and means of discarding Hagar and making Rosalia his wife. He is in this state of mind when he receives a letter from Hagar, who after having had time to reflect chooses to treat his behaviour as an outbreak of insanity—moral insanity, as opposed to his father’s mental derangement—and to behave as if nothing were really wrong. Her first letter, received during the darkest period of Raymond’s obsession, places a weapon in his hands: in it she recounts their child’s birth, her return to Heath Hall under Gusty’s protection, and her subsequent removel to Washington (for reasons undeclared). All this Raymond – who knew that Hagar was pregnant when he left her – twists into a confession of adultery and desertion, the easy means to a divorce.

Hagar’s second letter, however, written in response to his, is something else: a lengthy, detailed, painfully considered dissection of Raymond’s character, mind and behaviour – including his infatuation with Rosalia – that contains so much truth that even Raymond at his worst cannot gainsay it. This naked exposure of himself to himself is a shock to Raymond; he sees his pursuit of Rosalia for what it is, and also his marriage, and his treatment of Hagar. He is still in this rare chastened state of mind when he receives the frantic communication from Sophie informing him that Rosalia is his sister… The result is a breakdown – and “brain fever” (of course) – during which “his life was despaired of” – but no such luck. He recovers—he is recalled to America—but before leaving Genoa, he attends the concert of the celebrated new American singer…

I hardly know what to make of the conclusion of The Deserted Wife. Perhaps it’s just me, but here, as in Retribution, while I find the emotional violence and scenes of conflict and unhappiness convincing, I also find Southworth’s “happy endings” false to the point of being dishonest. After all that has happened, how can there be anything between Hagar and Raymond that you would dignify by calling “a marriage”? How can we believe, as the text insists, that the two of them were and are properly in love? Yet the novel concludes with the reconciliation of the two, offered up as if the reader is supposed to be glad: The beautiful family were all now united in love and joy.

And yet—perhaps the dishonesty is intentional? Perhaps, by paying this sort of lip-service, E.D.E.N. Southworth fully intended to expose not just the dishomesty but the cruelty of social convention, which demands that women love once and regardless, and that marriage is necessarily forever? I don’t know—but I look forward to reading more of her novels and trying to find out.

07/07/2012

The Deserted Wife (Part 2)

It was so strange! queer—a few words had been pattered over by a fat old gentleman in a gown; and, lo! all their relations were changed. It was curious; her very name and title were gone, and the girl, two minutes since a wild, free maiden, was now little better than a bondwoman; and the gentle youth who two minutes since might have sued humbly to raise the tips of her little dark fingers to his lips, was now invested with a life-long authority over her. Yes, it was so curious! and the spirited girl was in doubt whether to laugh or cry; and the expression of mingled emotions on her face blended into one of intense interest and inquiry as she met his gaze and smile, which she could not help fancying patronizing and condescending, as well as protective and loving! A new, extremely provoking feature in his smile! but perhaps she only fancied it…

From the beginning of her acquaintance with Withers, Sophie is haunted by a strange, spectral figure: a woman, pale and gaunt, with long, fair hair, who appears from nowhere, lurking at the edge of the surrounding forest and by the road. At the figure’s first appearance it points towards Withers, uttering the words Shun him! in a voice that only Sophie can hear…

On the evening of Sophie’s capitulation to Mrs Gardiner Green, on which her doom—her wedding-day—is fixed, the figure appears again:

    She looked up, and the phantom of the forest dell stood before her, the same wan, spectral face—the same large, intense, blue eyes, blazing in their hollow sockets, surrounded by their livid, blueish circle—the same streaming yellow hair, with its streaks of grey—the same emaciated claw-like fingers. Her intense gaze sought into Sophie’s eyes, and she knew that her visitor was a denizen of earth. She remained gazing into Sophie’s eyes a minute, and then she broke forth with terrible energy:
    “Do not marry him!—risk—suffer anything but that. Do not marry him! Be true to your instincts—they warned you at your first meeting, they warn you now! Be true to your instincts! They were given to you of God for your protection; it is a sin—it is a sin to disregard them, and the punishment will be more than you can bear!—a broken heart!—a maddened brain!—at least—a blighted life! Look at me!”
    She tore the mantle from her breast and displayed a skeleton form, to which the tight skin clung.
    “Who are you, in the name of Heaven?”
    “I am a shadow—a memory—a warning! I was his wife!”

With Withers’ appearance on the scene the spectre vanishes into the shadows, and is next seen a pathetic corpse, found floating in the bay. At the inquest, Sophie—clinging to the thought that Withers has always spoken of losing his first wife, never that his wife died—gathers together the last remnants of her strength and courage and testifies, telling all she knows of the dead woman. This compels Withers to respond. He testifies that he did know the woman, had known her all her life; that for the past year she was an inmate of a lunatic asylum, from where she escaped; but swears solemnly that she was not his wife. His word is taken, and the inquest closed.

With that, Sophie gives up her faint struggle for freedom, and goes to her marriage as to her execution.

After the ceremony, Sophie is summoned from the house by an unexpected arrival. At first glance she thinks that the suicide has returned to haunt her literally—the fair hair, the blue eyes, are the same—but the visitor is a young man, hardly more than a boy. His name is Frank Raymond Withers, and he has come to warn Sophie not to marry his father, because his father is insane…

A reeling Sophie then hears of the fits which gradually consumed the intellect of John Withers, causing him shame as well as terror, but which with the help of his son, he managed to conceal from the world; and of his marriage to Fanny Raymond—so much for the word of honour of a man of God—although when the boy is asked about his mother’s fate, he recoils. Raymond – so the boy is called – tells Sophie that she can have her marriage annulled, but upon being pressed, agrees that this would make Withers’ malady public knowledge and, in all likelihood, cost him his tenuous grip on his sanity.

Absorbing this story, Sophie—who has repeatedly been described to us as visionary, as seeking a higher calling—does not, as we might expect and even hope, flee her husband. Instead, she goes to the other extreme:

During the interview, a revolution had taken place in Sophie’s soul; all her deep religious feeling, her latent passion for self-devotion, her enthusiasm, her benevolence, had been called forth. Thus softened by pity, and inspired by her own lofty ideal of duty, she determined to devote herself to the tranquility of his shrunken and tortured life, with one purpose—his restoration to mental and physical health… An hour before, she had seemed a trembling, shrinking, suffering victim, offered in useless, objectless sacrifice; now she was a cheerful, self-possessed human soul, who had solved the problem of her life, and held the answer in her hands.

Intriguingly, from the first Sophie’s willing self-immolation is presented to us in ambiguous terms. Southworth starts out musing on the impulse of self-sacrifice, and the great works so achieved by noble souls—and then drifts into a reflection of the nature of fanaticism, and the damage that can be caused by enthusiasm unchecked by reason. So, we are to understand, is Sophie’s devotion to her husband, a duty which she pursues while neglecting all other duties.

And with this, the focus of The Deserted Wife begins to shift from Sophie to the most important duty she is neglecting: the child Hagar, who in a stroke of fate goes from being Sophie’s constant companion and the cynosure of her life, to a mere afterthought, neglected and ignored; something underfoot, and generally in the way.

Here, too, this novel takes on an ambivalent tone that will persist throughout its remaining pages. The positioning of Hagar as Southworth’s alter-ego could not be more nakedly evident as she struggles to aportion blame: constantly, bitterly critical of the girl for her inability to control her passions—her anger, her resentment, her jealousy—yet time and again, almost involuntarily, it seems, tracing her faults back to this moment in her childhood when Hagar is simply pushed aside.

Sophie had fallen into that dangerous error so common to enthusiasts—the exclusive absorption in one duty, to the neglect of others… Even religion, piety, which is most excellent, stretched beyond the line of moderation becomes fanaticism, superstition—which is anything but worship and honour to the Creator. For Scripture saith, “Be not righteous over much.” Poor Sophie was “over much,” and hence her self-sacrifice was not, as it might have been, productive of unmingled good. To Hagar it brought great evil…

From Hagar’s point of view, worse is to come than even her abrupt relegation in her aunt’s priorities. Word is received that Sophie’s sister and brother-in-law have fallen victim to a fever epidemic in Baltimore, and so Sophie finds herself guardian to her second niece, Rosalia, orphaned at the age of three. Fair-haired, blue-eyed, gentle and timid, wanting only to love and be loved, Rosalia is everything that Hagar is not. The older girl’s resentment manifests as contempt, while Rosalia conceives a fear of Hagar which she never quite gets over.

Rosalia’s arrival brings Hagar into temporary alliance with Withers—the two are otherwise mutually antagonistic. In her fair loveliness, Rosalia seems to Withers’ disordered gaze the unfortunate Fanny Raymond reincarnated, and he must be petted and soothed into acceptance of the girl by Sophie. However, everyone else in the household takes the beautiful child to their hearts in an instant—and before much time has passed, Hagar finds herself being told repeatedly that she will never be pretty like Rosalia, but she could at least try to be good like her.

And then they’re surprised that Hagar goes through life with a permanent scowl on her face, while behaving as badly as possible.

Upon Hagar, too, these influences were producing the worst effects. Jealousy and suspicion of the few she loved, scorn and contempt for the opinions of others—neglect of her person as little worth attention, and a morbid desire to be loved exclusively—these were some of the evil fruits of her wretched bringing-up…

The one consolation in Hagar’s life are those times when Raymond Withers is a member of the household, in between his college terms. The two become acquainted on the night of the wedding, when Hagar—in a fore-taste of things to come—is sitting by herself, the sole child amongst a crowd of indifferent adults. Raymond is drawn to the lonely little girl, plying her with cakes and sweetmeats while he investigates the source of her evident grief; and from the moment of this first encounter, he becomes the object of Hagar’s passionate devotion, her adopted brother:

    “She used to keep me always by her side, or on her lap; for two or three days she has left me here with Mrs May, and now that she has come, she scarcely speaks to me!” exclaimed the child, and her black eyes flashed under her sharp brows, and her white teeth gleamed under her up-turned lip as she spoke.
    A soft smile hovered an instant around the beautiful lips and under the golden eye-lashes of the youth as he said—“You look so like a little playful, spiteful black kitten, that I am almost afraid of your teeth and claws—however—” and stooping down he daintily lifted the child and set her on his lap. Then he said, “I think you are a jealous little girl.”
    “I don’t know what ‘jealous’ is, but I don’t like to be robbed of what is mine.”
    “You are selfish, I am afraid, my little one—who has robbed you?”
    “Mr Withers has got Sophie, and now he may have her, for I don’t care…”

In his time in the household of his father and step-mother, Raymond does indeed share with Sophie the care of Withers, and the job of concealing his illness from the community. It is no easy task, and becomes still less so as Withers’ malady grows upon him, and his fits, for the first time, threaten violence. Raymond, more familiar with the phases of his father’s illness than Sophie, becomes worried that she will no longer be able to soothe and calm him; that in fact, he poses a genuine threat to her. Finally, Raymond tells Sophie that they must think of a retreat for her, some place where she will be safe. Withers overhears—and, in his madness, misunderstands; his response is to seize Raymond by the throat…

E.D.E.N. Southworth was, as we have seen, an enormously successful and popular novelist; and the more I see of her writing, the more I’m inclined to think that the basis for her appeal may have been willingness to break taboos—to speak of unspeakable things, both in a broad, social sense and more intimately, domestically—using the unrealistic mask of the sensation novel as an excuse. In any event, critics of the time, some admiring, some horrified, were quick to single out this scene of familial violence, which we may say put Southworth on the map as a novelist:

    “Perfidous son of a perfidous mother!” he exclaimed, shaking him violently, “her image in heart and mind, as well as in person—traitor and reprobate! would you wile the love of my bride away from me? would you teach her your vile mother’s sin?”
    The youth was but as a reed in his grasp. Sophie sank pale and helpless into a chair. Now another figure appeared upon the scene—little Hagar stamping and screaming.
    “Let Raymond! let my brother alone! Let him go, I say! you old Satan, you. I—I’ll kill you—I’ll scratch your eyes out,” and clambering upon a chair, and then a table, she sprang upon the back of his neck. He was obliged to drop his hold of Raymond a moment to shake off the little wild-cat—he seized her, and pulling her off, hurled her flying through the open window…

Fortunately, this occurs on the ground floor…

The young Jane Eyre is probably the 19th century’s most famous poster child for violence and wilfulness, but she meets her match in Hagar—each of the girls both suffering and inflicting physical abuse. It is disturbing, although not, I suppose, altogether surprising that these twin shatterers of 19th century childhood myths should both be self-portraits by their creators.

(There’s an evil part of me that would love to give Jane and Hagar ten minutes alone in a room with Little Nell and the young Florence Dombey…)

This outbreak of violence on the part of John Withers represents the peak of his illness. From this point, he retreats into long periods of morose silence, and his general health begins gradually to fail. With the slow approach of death, ironically his mind clears. A new gentleness, and a deep remorse, are evident. Almost at the last, Withers steels himself for the task of confessing the entire truth about Fanny Raymond: a subject that, once recognising that this, above all else, would precipitate an attack—that it was Raymond’s resemblance to his mother that triggered Withers’ assault of his son—Sophie has scrupulously avoided. We hear of Withers’ reluctant embrace of the church, to which he was recociled by the adulation his impassioned sermons won him; of his introduction to the young Fanny, beautiful only child of an elderly father; and of the twisted nature of their relationship (in describing which, Southworth struggles, as she did in Retribution, with the necessity of saying “love” when she means “sex”):

“I wooed Fanny Raymond—did I love her? No; but her extreme youth, her beauty and graceful shyness strongly attracted me—through that idiosyncrasy that lured me to the pursuit of such. I wooed her, but she avoided me. That added zest to the chase. I had her father’s interest, and I married her. I married her, despite her reluctance, or rather because of her reluctance, and despite of tears, prayers and resistance… The wild shy creature, full of emotion as a harp is of music, was in my power—in my grasp. Oh! the wild beating of my heart, when I had caught and held the fluttering bird! Did I love her now? Yes! as the fire loves the fuel it consumes. And then she loved me, Sophie! or rather no, I will not profane the word that expresses your pure affection for me, Sophie. But she grew passionately, insanely fond of me—she loved me as the drunkard loves the bowl he feels is his destruction—as the moth loves the flame that must consume it. And then, Sophie! then, she lost all attractions for me! From indifference I grew almost to loath her. I struggled against this growing disgust, but it overmastered me…”

Unhappiness—estrangement—and finally, infidelity, betrayal and madness, as Fanny’s slighted and banked up passions finally break out in another direction, attaching to yet another unworthy object and precipitating disaster. As Withers succumbs to his first fit, Fanny flees the house. The young Raymond nurses his father back to comprehension, and is then sent in pursuit of his mother, who he eventually locates in a lunatic asylum; while a recovering Withers is left to confront a parish that knows every detail of his domestic disgrace. His fits return, periodically, and it is Raymond who bears the brunt, caring for his father and defending his secret against prying eyes. In one of his fits, Withers strikes Raymond a vicious blow, which injures his chest and leaves him with impaired health and permanent damage to his lungs.

Withers does at last recover – or at least, the fits became more infrequent – until Raymond feels secure enough to give in to his father’s prompting and return to his neglected education. At this time Withers resumes his correspondence with an old friend, Mr May, who has seen the notice of his resignation from the pulpit—which Withers attributes to grief over “the loss of my wife”. And from this correspondence springs the offer of a new parish, upon the death of Mr May…and Withers’ meeting with Sophie…and the reappearance and death of Fanny…

Changes have come to the quiet valley over the years of Sophie’s marriage, and her widowhood. The children have, perforce, grown up. Gusty May is preparing for a career in the navy, under the patronage of his uncle, which frees his mother to at long last become Mrs Buncombe. Rosalia is away at school in Baltimore, and Hagar—is Hagar.

Having contracted, in her lonely childhood, solitary habits, as a young woman Hagar scandalises the neighbourhood with her reckless habits and her indifference to public opinion. She is an intrepid horsewoman, a crack shot, an expert archer and an enthusiastic hunter, and can handle a boat with skill and ease; her overflowing emotions find an outlet in her devotion to her horse and her dogs, who are her constant companions in her wanderings. Hagar is, it almost goes without saying, an object of horror to the painfully conventional Emily Buncombe—and all the more so because Gusty, Hagar’s childhood friend, is rather obstinately in love with her, in spite of his mother’s limitless objections – and her fear of what the neighbours will say:

    “I have a worse fear for you than that, Gusty, a far worse fear for you than that. This Hagar, she is the talk of the whole neighbourhood; her eccentricity, her improprieties, expose her to severe animadversions.”
    “Her originality you mean; her independence; her free, strong, glorious spirit! Oh! Hagar is a chamois! you cannot expect her to trot demurely to the music of her own grunting, from trough to straw, like any pig! Hagar is an eagle! you must not look to find her waddling lazily and feeding fatly with barnyard ducks and geese.”
    “A pretty way to speak of your neighbours, Mr May.”
    “Well, then, let them leave Hagar alone!”

Hagar’s affection for Gusty is real enough, but thoroughly sisterly, and she holds him at a determined distance. For Hagar’s heart is gone, long gone; given to Raymond without hesitation—yet not without a qualm. The two of them become engaged, are so for some time. For all Hagar’s love for Raymond, some instinct makes her shrink from taking the final, fatal step. There is, at last, a final tussle of two strong wills – and in spite of the text’s insistence upon Raymond’s “gentleness”, of which we hear from his first appearance, there is no doubt of the steel behind it. Since completing his education, Raymond has been building a career for himself, and now he tells Hagar that he has been offered an appointment at the Court of Madrid—which he will accept if she does not agree to an immediate marriage. Still the battle goes on, Raymond insisting and Hagar resisting. They part—he goes—but before he can get any further than New York, a letter calls him back…

Hagar’s marriage has consequences for people other than herself and Raymond. Poor Gusty, in his desolation and in his need for someone to love, makes a fool of himself by asking Sophie to marry him (she is, as he points out, only eight years older than himself), and is refused with both tact and affection. Gusty is then sent away, under the guise of making himself useful, to fetch Rosalia from Baltimore so that she can attend the wedding; and by the time the two appear – having travelled by land rather than water, due to Rosalia’s terrors – Gusty’s pliable affections have taken yet another turn—and this time, they stick.

Meanwhile, word comes that Emily Buncombe is expecting a visit from her brother. The first meeting between Augustus and Sophie is awkward in the extreme, full of “Captain Wilde” and Mrs Withers” – until an involuntary shower of tears from Sophie finds her in her lover’s arms and, his leave being brief, agreeing to an immediate marriage on the single condition that when they depart, Rosalia goes with them—the alternative being to leave her with Hagar:

“Hagar is dangerous to one so tender as Rosalia. Would you put a dove in the guardianship of a young eagle? Hagar has a fine, high spirit—she would go through fire or flood to serve one she loved—but, mark you! she would cast that one she loved back into the fire or flood if they should offend her.”

As for Hagar, she watches from a distance the effect of Rosalia: Sophie’s rapturous greeting of the girl, and Captain Wilde’s unconcealed admiration; that Gusty, such a short time ago at her own feet, is utterly entranced by her; and that Raymond gazes upon her with the eyes of a connoisseur – and perhaps something more. The demon jealousy is awake in an instant, precipitating a skirmish between Hagar and her husband, a battle of the wills that is a disturbing portent of worse to come…

It is, perversely, Raymond’s very gentleness that frightens his wife; his command over himself, which gives him a strange power over her. She recognises this, although she has no way of combatting it. Her passions are all fire and tempest; his, ice and steel behind a face like a mask—at least in front of outsiders. Raymond is an immovable object against which Hagar’s force proves anything but irresistable, but instead batters itself into helpless submission:

She stopped short, and gazed in surprise at him. How changed his aspect! was it the same Raymond that an hour ago was smiling, bowing, glancing, gliding through the lighted drawing-rooms? He stood with folded arms and curling lip; his cold eye crawling over her from head to foot, yet so fascinating in his beautiful scorn, that she could have uttered a death-cry of anguish, as love and pride tugged at her…

We might be inclined to think, during the early stages of this nove , that John Withers’ obsession with pursuing women who do not want him, are in fact frightened of him, is a manifestation of his insanity—until the text takes pains to tell us otherwise. And here we find Raymond pursuing the same course—Raymond, whose father’s malady is explicitly characterised as not hereditary—the eminently sane Raymond—marrying a woman with the declared intention (declared after the event, of course, not before) of dominating her will and compelling her to submit and obey. In fact, Raymond goes his father one better by choosing a woman not weak and gentle, but passionate and wilful: a woman whose spirit is fully worth a man’s trouble in breaking it:

    “Come, come!—come, come! be still, Hagar, no phrensy,” said he, smilingly, tauntingly caressing her, while a gentle, cruel strength struck out from the pressure of the soft arms that held her in a fast embrace; “if your eagle flaps its wings and beats its cage so violently, I am afraid clipping its pinions and claws will not be enough—I am afraid I will have to crush it altogether,” said he, looking down into her eyes.
    She ceased to struggle, and letting fall her hands clasped upon her lap—dropped her head upon her chest, while the colour all faded from her cheeks, and the light from her eyes.
    “Come, love, you are a spirited little thing, but you will be docile by and by…”

[To be continued…]