…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.