Posts tagged ‘Mary Elizabeth Braddon’

10/12/2019

The Captain Of The Vulture (Part 2)


 
    …close beside the hearth, with his back to the window, sat the same traveller whom Samuel Pecker had last seen beneath his own roof. The uncertain flame of the fire, shooting up for a moment in a vivid blaze, only to sink back and leave all in shadow, revealed nothing but the mere outline of this man’s figure, and revealed even that but dimly, yet at the very first glance through the uncurtained window Millicent Duke uttered a great cry, and falling on her knees in the snow, sobbed aloud,—“My husband! My husband, returned alive to make me the guiltiest and most miserable of women!”
    She grovelled on the snowy ground, hiding her face in her hands and wailing piteously. Darrell lifted her in his arms and carried her into the house.
    The traveller had heard the cry, and stood upon the hearth, with his back to the fire, facing the open door; and the traveller was in sorry truth the Captain of the Vulture—that person of all others upon earth whose presence was most terrible to Darrell and Millicent…

 

 

 

 

Christmas comes once again to Compton – it is the sixth anniversary of the visit of the mysterious pedlar, and Sarah Pecker’s reformation – and this time the inn is honoured by a trio of young bucks. Their presence is considered a mark of honour for the establishment, in spite of the demands they make upon its resources and their riotous behaviour. Recognised head of the household or not, Samuel Pecker still knows when he is out of his depth; and so he suggests to Sarah that she be the one to ask the party to be a little less rough and noisy. It is therefore she who carries in the last bottles of old port held by the Black Bear:

    The third member of the little party, and he who seemed far the most sober of the three, lounged with his back to the fire and his elbow leaning on the mantelpiece… His flashing black eyes, and his small white teeth, which glittered as he spoke, lit up his face, which, in spite of his evident youth, was wan and haggard—the face of a man prematurely old from excitement and dissipation; for the hand of Time during the last six years had drawn many a wrinkle about the restless eyes and determined mouth of Sir Lovel Mortimer, Baronet, alias Captain Fanny, highwayman, and, on occasion, housebreaker.
    Heaven knows what there was in the appearance of any one of the party in the white parlour to overawe or agitate the worthy mistress of the Black Bear, but it is a sure thing that a faint and dusky pallor crept over Sarah Pecker’s face as she set the wine and glasses upon the table. She seemed nervous and uneasy under the strange dazzle of Captain Fanny’s black eyes. It has been said that they were not ordinary eyes; indeed, there was something in them which the physiognomists of to-day would no doubt have set themselves industriously at work to define and explain. They were not restless only. There was a look in them almost of terror—not of a terror of to-day or yesterday, but of some dim far-away time too remote for memory—the trace of some shock to the nervous system received long before the mind had power to note its force, but which had left its lasting seal upon one feature of the face.
    Sarah Pecker dropped and broke one of her best wine glasses under the strange influence of these restless eyes. They fixed her gaze as if they had possessed some magnetic power…

It is the fancy of Sir Lovel Mortimer to hold Sarah in conversation; and she, nettled by his contemptuous attitude to her home village, is roused to answer firmly enough. So the baronet learns of the death of Ringwood Markham, and the inheritance of the family estate by his sister, Millicent; Mrs George Duke. He takes Sarah up on her insistence that Millicent is a widow:

    “The world is wide enough outside Compton-on-the-Moor; and your sailor is a roving blade, who is apt to take his own pleasure abroad, forgetful of any one who may be waiting for him at home. Who knows that Captain Duke may not come back to-morrow to claim his wife and her fortune?”
    “The Lord forbid!” said Mrs Pecker earnestly; “I would rather not be wishing ill to any one: but sooner than poor Miss Millicent should see him come back to break her heart and waste her money, I would pray that the Captain of the Vulture may lie drowned and dead under the foreign seas.”
    “A pious wish!” cried Captain Fanny, laughing. “However, as I don’t know the gentleman, Mrs Pecker, I don’t mind saying, Amen. But as to seven years’ absence being proof enough to make a woman a widow, that’s a common mistake and a vulgar one, Mrs Sarah, which I scarcely expected to hear of from a woman of your sense. Seven years—why, husbands have come back after seventeen!”
    Mrs Pecker made no answer to this…

So focused are the people of Compton upon the visit of the baronet and his companions, and the consequent honour bestowed upon their village, that they barely notice the rash of violent robberies that occur in the surrounding districts; or at least, no-one thinks to tie these events together.

I remarked at the outset of my plunge into George Reynolds’ monumental penny-dreadful, The Mysteries Of London, that it was very obvious that Mary Elizabeth Braddon had been strongly influenced by Reynolds; likewise, that she was in sympathy with many of his social criticisms. Her way of addressing such points was always very different, however: whereas Reynolds does so with rhetoric and tub-thumping, Braddon’s way is that of black humour and/or chilly matter-of-factness. Here, for instance, merely as a throwaway observation in context, is a reference to the conditions prevailing in England during the 18th century, and the savage property laws of the time. It’s something that Reynolds might have said—but this isn’t the way he would have said it:

The sojourn of a handsome young baronet at the Black Bear was a rare event, to be remembered and talked of for a twelvemonth at least; while violence, outrage, robbery, and murder upon the king’s highway were of everyday occurrence. London kept holiday every Monday morning, and went gipsying and sight-seeing Tyburnwards. Thieves, retired from business, made goodly fortunes by hunting down old comrades. Children were hung without mercy for the stealing of three halfpence on that via sacra, the king’s highway; because the law—poor well-intentioned blundering monster as it was—could frame a statute, but could not make a distinction, and could only hang by the letter, where it might have pardoned according to the spirit.

The next event of significance to our characters is the coming of the end of January—the seventh anniversary of George Duke’s disappearance. Millicent must then seek out Darrell Markham in London and deliver to him Ringwood’s letter, as per her solemn promise; but she has little idea how to go about her task, and is mightily relieved when Sarah forces her own company upon her.

Holding hard to her Cumberland heritage, Sarah stubbornly refuses to be either thrilled, shocked or awed by London. As for Millicent, she barely notices her surroundings for thinking of the upcoming meeting. She has not seen her cousin Darrell for seven years either—not since he lay injured and delirious at the Black Bear, after being attacked by a man he swore was George Duke…

Millicent spends the hired coach journey between the inn at which she and Sarah are staying and the townhouse of Lord C— tormenting herself with visions of a very different Darrell; an indifferent Darrell; a Darrell in love with someone else. The reality is more prosaic but for the moment just as daunting: Darrell has grown up:

Of all the changes Millicent had ever dreamed of, none had come about. But this one change, of which she had never dreamed, had certainly come to pass. Darrell Markham had grown stouter within the past seven years ; not unbecomingly so, of course. He had only changed from a stripling into a stalwart broad-chested, and soldierly-looking fellow, whose very presence inspired poor helpless Millicent with a feeling of safety. He clasped his poor little shivering cousin to his breast, and covered her cold forehead with kisses…

Millicent is inspired with a new terror: that, he in London, she in Compton, Darrell may simply have grown away from her; but her fears in that respect are soon put thoroughly to rest. She hesitates as Darrell insists upon the implications of the seven-years’ silence, and changes the subject by putting Ringwood’s letter, as per her promise, into her cousin’s hand. Her hope is that Ringwood has left Darrell a bequest—which, as Darrell tells her, is exactly what he has done:

    It was thus that poor Ringwood had written:
    “Cousen Darrel,
    “When you gett this, Capten Duk will hav bin away sevin years. I canot lieve you a legasy, but I lieve you my sister Mily, who after my deth will be a ritch woman, for your tru and lovyng wife. Forgett
all past ill blud betwixt us, and cherish her for the sake of
    “RINGWOOD MARKHAM.”

Still gripped by her belief that George Duke is alive and waiting, Millicent resists her fate; but she has not the strength of character to withstand the force represented by an impassioned Darrell and a determined Sarah. However, she outrages the latter by refusing to come out of her mourning for Ringwood for her wedding, compromising only so far as a pale lavender gown. And though she very much enjoys the intervening fortnight, during which time Darrell ensures that she and Sarah see all the sights, there is a shadow over her happiness. At the last moment, her terrors overcome her:

    …Mrs George Duke, falling on her knees at Darrell’s feet, lifted up her clasped hands and appealed to him thus :—
    “O, Darrell, Darrell, I feel as if this was a wicked thing that we are going to do! What evidence have I that George Duke is dead? and what right have I to give my hand to you, not knowing whether it may not still belong to another? Delay this marriage. Wait, wait, and more certain news may reach us; for some thing tells me that we have no justification for the vows we are going to take to-day.”
    She spoke with such a solemn fervour, with such an earnestness in every word, with a light that seemed almost the radiance of inspiration shining in her blue
eyes, that Darrell Markham would have been led to listen to her almost as seriously as she had spoken, but for the interference of Mrs Sarah Pecker. That aggrieved matron, however, showered forth a whole volley of indignant exclamations, such as “Stuff and nonsense, child!”

Sarah hustles the pair into marriage; and this despite the fact that she herself receives at the last moment what she is inclined to take as an ill omen. Almost knocked down on the slippery pavement outside the London church, she is saved by a passing stranger…only he is not a stranger: it is none other than Sir Lovel Mortimer, looking very different from his normal dandified self in a brown wig and thick, almost disguising clothing; but there is no mistaking those eyes. The baronet is very interested to learn what business it is that has brought Sarah to London, and goes off leaving his compliments for the bride and groom.

The wedding goes ahead in spite of the spoken and unspoken fears of the trio; no George Duke appears to forbid it, in spite of Millicent’s nervous glances over her shoulder. With Darrell’s ring upon her finger, Millicent at last allows herself to relax:

Millicent abandoned herself to the delight of Darrell’s presence, and had well-nigh forgotten that she had ever lived away from him. She was with him, sheltered and protected by his love, and all the vague doubts and terrors of the wedding morning had vanished out of her mind. It seemed as if she had left her fears in the stony London church from which she had emerged as Darrell Markham’s wife. She had felt a shadowy apprehension of some shapeless trouble hovering near at hand, some unknown sorrow ready to fall upon her and crush her; but she felt this apprehension no longer. Nothing had occurred to interrupt the marriage. It seemed to her, therefore, as if the marriage, being permitted by Providence, must needs be happy…

The three travel home to Compton, and they make their first stop at the Black Bear where, knowing of the limited resources at the Hall, Sarah has sent ahead to order a celebratory dinner prepared for the newly-weds. Arriving at the inn, she hurries in ahead of her companions to check that her orders have been carried out—and finds herself confronted by the Samuel of old, a timid, weary man clearly expecting thunderstorms to descend upon his head:

    “What! what!” cried Sarah, some indistinct terror chilling her very blood; “what is it, Samuel?—have you lost your speech?”
    It seemed indeed for a moment as if Mr Pecker had been suddenly deprived of the use of that faculty. He shook his head from side to side, swallowed and gasped alternately, and then grasping Sarah by the arm, pointed with his disengaged hand to another half-open door exactly opposite to that of the room in which the dinner-table was laid. “Look there!” he ejaculated in a hoarse whisper close to Sarah’s ear.
    Following the direction of Samuel’s extended hand, Mrs Pecker looked into a room which was generally devoted to the ordinary customers at the Bear, but which on this winter’s evening had but one occupant. This solitary individual was a man wearing a dark blue travel-stained coat, jack-boots, and loose brown curling hair tied with a ribbon. His back was turned to Sarah and her husband, and he was bending over the sea-coal fire with his elbows on his knees and his chin resting in his hands. While Mrs Sarah Pecker stood as if transfixed, staring silently at this traveller, Darrell followed Millicent into the hall, and thence into the oak parlour, closing the door behind him.
    “O, Samuel, Samuel! how shall I ever tell her? ” exclaimed Mrs Pecker.

She cannot—and in fact does not. She excuses herself from joining the dinner, and has the inn’s servant wait upon Darrell and Millicent; which is also what Samuel has done with regard to the inn’s other customer. The Peckers try to come to terms with the appalling situation—each of them in their own way:

    “Only an hour—only an hour,” groaned Sarah: “if it had pleased Providence to have taken his life before that hour, what a happy release for them two poor innocent creatures in yonder room!”
    “Ah, what a release indeed!” echoed Samuel. “He’s sittin’ with his back to the door: if somebody could go behind him sudden with a kitchen poker,” added the innkeeper, looking thoughtfully at Sarah’s stout arm; “but then,” he continued, reflectively, “there’d be the body; and that would be against it. If you come to think of it, the leading inconvenience of a murder is that there’s generally a body. But I suppose it’s only right it should be so; for if it wasn’t for bodies, murders would be uncommon easy.”
    Sarah did not appear particularly struck by the brilliancy of her husband’s discourse; she sat in her own particular arm-chair before the old-fashioned fire place, with her hands clasped upon her knees, rocking herself to and fro, and repeating mournfully,—“O, if it had but pleased Providence to take him before that hour!—if it had but pleased Providence!”
    She remembered afterwards that as she said these words there was a feeling in her heart tantamount to an inarticulate prayer that some species of sudden death might overtake the traveller in the common parlour…

The traveller departs while Darrell and Millicent are still at dinner; for the Hall, the Peckers dismally conclude. Even at the last Sarah cannot bring herself to speak the terrible words; and though the others see that something has happened to upset their old friend, the dreadful truth does not cross their minds.

It is a short but hard walk from the Black Bear to Markham Hall, through the snow and by the light of a lantern carried by Samuel. Millicent, somewhat infected by Sarah’s fears, recoils when she sees footprints in the pathway. To approach their own front door, the two must pass several windows, including one giving into a room in which a fire has been lit: inside, a man sits before that fire…

Here, at last, we find ourselves upon familiar Braddon-ground in The Captain Of The Vulture. The bigamy-plot was one of the mainstays of the 19th century sensation novel; though it was not confined to that genre. It was occasionally deployed in more mainstream literature, too, but almost always with a man at the apex of the triangle: obviously this was considered a less shocking situation. In sensation novels, however, it was an excellent way of having a woman – generally the heroine – sexually guilty and yet innocent at the same time—if the bigamy was accidental, which was not always the case.

Braddon had already dabbled in these waters, in her first novel, The Trail Of The Serpent; but there it was merely one subplot in a dizzying maze of mystery and crime. This was the first time she brought this situation front-and-centre; and indeed, it is possible that she was using The Captain Of The Vulture as something of a dry run: bigamy would (though in very different ways) be the fulcrum of her two succeeding novels, which would be among her most controversial yet most successful works.

She handles the matter rather differently here, fittingly for what is an historical romance rather than a sensation novel, having poor Millicent agonise over her “sin” in explicitly religious terms. And there is something concrete for her to agonise over: daringly on Braddon’s part, it is clear that the marriage has been consummated.

Darrell does his best to intervene on Millicent’s behalf, arguing indeed that she was pressured into her new marriage against her better judgement; but he might as well be addressing a brick wall:

    “Now you come here and listen to me, Mistress Millicent Markham, Mrs George Duke, Mrs Darrell Markham, or whatever you may please to call yourself. Come here, I say.”
    She had been lying on the sofa, never blest by one moment’s unconsciousness, but acutely sensible of every word that had been said. Her husband caught hold of her wrist with a rough jerk, and lifted her from the sofa. “Listen to me, will you,” he said, “my very dutiful and blameless wife! I am going to ask you a few questions. Do you hear?”
    “Yes.”
    She neither addressed him by his name nor looked at him as he spoke. Gentle as she was, tender and loving as she was to every animate thing, she made no show of gentleness to him, nor any effort to conceal her shuddering abhorrence of him…

And of course, Captain Duke is not much interested in the marriage as such. What he is interested in, is Millicent’s inheritance of Compton Hall—and his consequent rights as her husband. His words are vicious, deliberately cruel—yet it is almost as if Millicent does not hear them. There is only one thought in her mind, one question which she must ask:

“George Duke, did you stay away these seven years on purpose to destroy me, body and soul?”

Somewhat to her surprise, and ours, the answer is ‘no’: Captain Duke was, he claims, cast away on a Pacific island, and only recently rescued.

Rendered helpless by the situation, Darrell can only insist upon his altered position as Millicent’s only relative. He withdraws—but warns Captain Duke about his treatment of Millicent, and adds that he will be back on the following day.

As he makes to withdraw, Millicent suddenly comes out of her near-catatonic state:

    “Stop!” cried Millicent, as her cousin was leaving the room; “my husband took an earring from me when we parted at Marley, and bade me ask him for it on his return. Have you that trinket?” she asked the Captain.
    She looked him in the face with an earnest, half-terrified gaze. She remembered the double of George Duke, seen by her upon Marley pier, in the winter moonlight.
    The sailor took a small canvas bag from his waist coat pocket. The bag contained a few pieces of gold and silver money, and the diamond earring which Millicent had given George Duke on the night of their parting…

It is the final, crushing blow:

    …going straight to her cousin, she put her two icy hands into his, and addressed him thus:
    “Farewell, Darrell Markham, we must never, never meet again. Heaven forgive us both for our sin; for Heaven knows we were innocent of evil intent. I will obey this man in all reasonable things, and will share my fortune with him and do my duty to him to my dying day; but I can never again be what I was to him before he left this place seven years ago; I can never be his wife again. Good night.”
    She put her cousin from her with a solemn gesture, which, with the simple words that she had spoken, seemed to him like a dissolution of their marriage…

With nowhere else to go, Darrell accepts the invitation of the waiting – and very apologetic – Samuel, to take up his residence at the Black Bear. It is intention to stay in Compton for the present, to see for himself how George Duke intends to treat his wife. He and Samuel turn their sad steps back along the snowy path to the inn. Along their way, the two encounter a man headed in the other direction:

    …a man wearing a horseman’s cloak, and muffled to the chin, with the snow-flakes lying white upon his hat and shoulders.
    Samuel Pecker gave this man a friendly though feeble good-night, but the man seemed a surly fellow, and made no answer. The snow lay so deep upon the ground that the three men passed one another as noiselessly as shadows.
    “Have you ever taken notice, Mr Darrell,” said
Samuel, some time afterwards, “that folks in snowy weather looks very much like ghosts; quiet, and white, and solemn?”

And this man is not the only unexpected visitor on this snowy night. Another, muffled up beyond recognition, calls at the Black Bear, demanding brandy. His voice is vaguely to familiar to Sarah, but she cannot place it—not until, in taking his drink, he exposes his face to her:

    He threw back his head as he swallowed the last drop of the fiery liquor, then throwing Mrs Pecker the price of the brandy, he bade her a hasty good-night, and strode out of the house.
    The empty glass dropped from Sarah’s hand, and shivered into fragments on the floor. Her white and terror-stricken face frightened the waiter when he returned from his errand to the stables.
    The man she had served with brandy could not surely be George Duke, for the Captain had an hour before set out for the Hall; but if not George Duke himself, this man was most certainly some unearthly shadow or double of the Captain of the Vulture…

Up at Compton Hall, Millicent goes about her duties with an air almost of quiet defiance, and declaredly has prepared for a husband a room far separate from her own, one known as the ‘Garden Room’ for its proximity to the grounds. She is interrupted by a caller – he who passed Darrell and Samuel – who seems agitated by news of the Captain’s return, but storms away without seeing him. The Captain, too, when informed, becomes angry and abusive.

Unmoved, Millicent withdraws to her own room. There her stony demeanour crumbles, as she confronts what she considers her enormous guilt—and the reality of what her life must now be. In the extremity of her misery, she even contemplates suicide, going so far as to find one of her father’s old razors. The impulse is soon quelled, however, though in her trembling haste she cuts herself while putting the blade away again. It is not a dangerous cut, but it bleeds significantly even after she bandages it up. That done, she can only sit in sleepless misery, contemplating the future…

Meanwhile, downstairs, George Duke too is reflecting upon his very altered fortunes:

“To think,” he said, “only to fancy that this Ringwood Markham, a younger man than myself, should have died within a few months of my coming home! Egad, they’ve said that George Duke was one of those fellows who always fall on their feet. I’ve had a hard time of it for the last seven years, but I’ve dropped into good luck after all—dropped into my old luck—a fortune, and a poor frightened wife that can’t say bo to a goose—a poor trembling novel-reading pale-faced baby…”

Having polished off one bottle of claret and another of brandy, the Captain staggers off to bed—still congratulating himself, and looking forward to “settling” with Darrell and Millicent:

    Mechanically his wandering right hand sought the butt-end of the pistol beneath the pillow, and so with his fingers resting on the familiar weapon, George Duke dropped off to sleep.
    It is doubtful if he had ever said a prayer in his life. He said none that night.

At some point during the endless winter night, Millicent is seized with the notion of signing over to George Duke everything she owns – everything – and under any conditions he chooses to impose, if only he will go away and leave her alone. Impulsively, she makes her way to the Garden Room:

    The firelight, changeful and capricious, now played upon the sleeper’s ringlets, lying in golden-brown tangles upon the pillow, now glanced upon the white fingers resting on the pistol, now flashed upon the tarnished gilding of the bed-posts, now glimmered on the ceiling, now lit up the wall; while Millicent’s weary eyes followed the light, as a traveller, astray on a dark night, follows a will-o’-the-wisp.
    She followed the light wherever it pleased to lead her. From the golden ringlets on the pillow to the hand upon the pistol, from the gilded bed-posts to the ceiling and the wall, lower and lower down the wall, creeping stealthily downwards, to the oaken floor beside the bed, and to a black pool which lay there, slowly saturating the time-blackened wood.
    The black pool was blood—a pool that grew wider every second, fed by a stream which was silently pouring from a hideous gash across the throat of Captain George Duke, of the good ship Vulture…

Millicent flees into the snowy night. She ignores her nearer neighbours and heads straight for the Black Bear, rousing the household with her cries. They, in turn, find her in hysterics, her hair dishevelled, her hands and her clothing smeared with blood, as she shrieks of George Duke’s murder…

The first impulse of Darrell, Sarah and Samuel is to protect Millicent from whatever has happened, but the inn’s ostler summons a constable, who has very different ideas. He and Darrell venture to Compton Hall, where they find any amount of what seems like damning evidence against Millicent—but there is one thing that they do not find:

    The candle, burned down to the socket of the quaint old silver candlestick, stood where Millicent had left it on a table near the window. The tapestry curtain, flung aside from the door as she had flung it in her terror, hung in a heap of heavy folds. That hideous pool between the bed and the fireplace had widened and spread itself; but the hearth was cold and black, and the bed upon which George Duke had lain was empty.
    It was empty. The pillow on which his head had rested was there, stained a horrible red with his blood. The butt-end of the pistol, on which his fingers had lain when he fell asleep was still visible beneath the pillow. Red ragged  stains and streaks of blood, and one long gory line which marked what way the stream had flowed towards the dark pool on the floor, disfigured the bedclothes; but beyond this there was nothing…

The men search, but no body is to be found. Money there is in abundance, however; so this is not a matter of robbery-homicide. The two notice another curious point:

    …the constable walked slowly round the chamber, looking at everything in his way. “What’s come of the Captain’s clothes, I wonder?” he said, rubbing his chin, and staring thoughtfully at the bed.
    It was noticeable that no vestige of clothing belonging to Captain George Duke was left in the apartment…

The murder of George Duke sends shockwaves of horrified delight through Compton—in itself, and inasmuch as the body must be somewhere. The subsequent investigation turns up nothing helpful, and ends as – in one respect – it must:

    Hugh Martin carried a certain official-looking document in his hand. Armed with this, he walked straight across the room to the sofa upon which Millicent sat.
    “Mrs Millicent Duke,” he said, “in the King’s name I arrest you for the wilful murder of your husband, George Duke.”

Unexpectedly, during the subsequent official inquiry, Millicent stands up under questioning far better than the people who love her: she tells her story openly and straightforwardly, winning the sympathy of everyone who hears her. But matters falter on a general failure to identify an alternative suspect. Millicent admits she knows nothing of her husband’s life away from Compton; Darrell can only add (what he sometime earlier discovered) that Duke was not a naval officer at all; and otherwise, there is only Samuel’s garbled tale of George Duke’s double. The matter concludes with Millicent committed to stand trial…

We might be inclined to feel that Braddon could have fudged the issue of Millicent’s guilt or innocence—omitted her discovering of the body, and begun the scene with her showing up at the Black Bear hysterical and covered in blood. But given Millicent’s own character, as drawn, this would have been an unnecessary piece of obfuscation: she was never the kind of worm that was going to turn, at least not to the point of cutting her husband’s throat. In later Braddon works, however, such is not always the case; and there are several in which the degree of the protagonist’s guilt becomes the crux of her narrative.

In essence, the final stages of The Captain Of The Vulture play out something like a conventional murder mystery, with Darrell Markham turning amateur detective and racing against time to try and find the evidence that will secure Millicent’s acquittal; while there is also a series of revelations about the true identities of several of the supporting cast, and the roles they have played in the tangled business.

But Braddon also uses this phase of her novel to cast a jaundiced eye on the justice system – so-called – and though overtly she admits that this was a hundred years or more in the past, she knows – and knows her readers know – that not nearly enough had changed since, even if some points of procedure had.

Again we see the similarities and differences between Braddon and George Reynolds: the points that they make, and the disparate ways in which they make them. In particular, both authors had a horror of capital punishment within a system in which circumstantial evidence carried so much weight, and no more than lip-service was paid to the presumption of innocence. Braddon even circumvents those who might be inclined to argue that, these days (that is, the 1860s) the law “pampers” criminals, by suggesting wryly that if so, it had plenty to make up for…

Darrell does succeed in elucidating some of the mystery of George Duke’s life, and discovers where he really was during those seven years – let’s just say that it wasn’t cast away on a desert island – but when Millicent’s trial begins, neither those hired to defend her nor those who love and believe in her hold much hope of her acquittal. Even when a decomposed body is found once the ice melts on a pond behind the stables at Compton Hall, it does not, under existing legal procedures, with the defence counsel permitted only to cross-examine and not to mount a rebuttal, play the part it should in Millicent’s defence:

Thus it was that the one strong point in favour of Millicent was insufficiently demonstrated to the jury who were to decide the awful question of her guilt or innocence. That one point was the physical weakness of the accused, and the improbability, if not impossibility, that such a woman could have carried the body of a stalwart strongly built man down a flight of stone steps, and across a space of forty yards, to a frozen pond, the ice upon the surface of which she must have broken before throwing the corpse of her victim into the water…

But Braddon doesn’t let her crusading overwhelm her narrative—and she pulls back from these grim matters to use her courtroom scene, not just to score points, but as the setting for a suitably dramatic ending to her narrative, when Thomas Masterson, aka the mysterious pedlar, is reluctantly giving evidence:

    In the very midst of a sentence Thomas Masterson stopped, and with ashen cheeks and dilated eyes stared across the heads of the lawyers and the multitude at the doorway of the court, which was in an elevated situation, communicating by a flight of steps with the main body of the building. A man who had just entered the court was standing at the top of these steps apart from all other spectators…
    “Why do you pause, Thomas Masterson?” asked the barrister.
    The witness slowly raised his hand, and pointed to the stranger at the top of the steps.
    “Because Cap’en George Duke has just come into the court,” he answered…

There is a distinct air of disappointment in the courtroom once this new witness has testified, accounting for the injury to his throat that really wasn’t as bad as it looked, his decision to leave Compton Hall again, and the travelling to which was due his failure to hear of his wife’s arrest. The spectators feel aggrieved at being deprived of their expected entertainment, with Millicent discharged by the judge; but this changes in a flash when, with more honour than discretion, and more deperation than either, the prisoner responds:

    Millicent Duke rose from her seat for the first time since the trial had begun. She stood up, calmly facing the eager crowd, which had been so ready to condemn her for a witch and a murderess, and which was now as ready to applaud and pity her as an innocent victim.
    She turned to the judge, and said, with quiet deliberation,—” I thank you, my lord, for your goodness to me; but that man is not my husband!”

 

10/12/2019

The Captain Of The Vulture (Part 1)


 
All Compton might think the Captain dead, but Millicent could not think so. She seemed possessed by some settled conviction that all the storms which ever rent the skies or shook the ocean would never cause the death of George Duke. She watched for his coming with a sick dread that every day might bring him. She rose in the morning with the thought that ere the early winter’s night closed in he would be seated by the hearth. She never heard a latch lifted without trembling lest his hand should be upon it, nor listened to a masculine footfall in the village High Street without dreading lest she should recognise his familiar step. Her meeting with George Duke’s shadow upon the moonlit pier at Marley had added a superstitious terror to her old dread and dislike of her husband. She thought of him now as a being possessed of unholy privileges. He might be near her, but unseen and impalpable ; he might be hiding in the shadowy corners of the dark wainscot, or crouching in the snow outside the latticed window. He might be a spy upon her inmost thoughts, and knowing her distrust and aversion, might stay away for long years, only to torment her the more by returning when she had forgotten to expect him, and had even learned to be happy…

 

 

 

I was more than a little appalled, quite some months back now, to realise I had let a year slip away between my examinations of the novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon; but while I did then make a point of reading The Captain Of The Vulture, writing about it was another matter…not least because I progressively let both the second volume of The Mysteries Of London and The Sicilian join it on the list of things read-but-not-dealt-with.

But that was not the only reason for the delay. I found The Captain Of The Vulture to be the least appealing of Braddon’s novels so far, though that is not to say that it is unentertaining; on the contrary; but it does lack some of the usual Braddon spark. It is an odd book, something of an outlier in her collected works: an historical romance, rather than a contemporary sensation novel, and one lacking any obvious identification figure. It is less packed with incident than we are accustomed to, and (mostly) without the usual daring humour.

This seems to be almost a recurring theme amongst those of Braddon’s works which were intended for a “respectable” audience—as was The Captain Of The Vulture, which was serialised in weekly numbers in The Welcome Guest between April and August, 1861, before appearing as a single-volume book in 1862. It was also published in America in 1863, under the variant title, Darrell Markham; or, The Captain Of The Vulture.

Despite this retitling and his overt “hero” role, Darrell Markham is off-stage for much of the novel; while George Duke, the titular Captain, is anything but heroic. Indeed, the novel abounds in rogues—but they are all of the cut-throat variety, rather than the perversely likeable sort that we encountered in (for example) Lady Lisle. And while we may finally choose to call Millicent Duke this novel’s heroine, this is rather because of the horrors she must endure over the course of the story than for her personal qualities.

But if The Captain Of The Vulture is lacking in certain respects, there is no shortage of mystery and crime within its pages. In particular, Braddon seems to have been experimenting with “doubling”, with her narrative studded with cases of mistaken identity, certain incidents playing out more than once, various plot-points and motifs showing up in parallel at different levels of society,  and the central plot turning upon a “double” of the most explicit kind.

The Captain Of The Vulture is set in Georgian England (in-text references to the novels of Samuel Richardson place the action about 1755), and opens in the village of Compton-on-the-Moor. Darrell Markham, once a resident of the district, arrives unexpectedly at the door of the inn, the “Black Bear”, where a flurry of conversation alerts us to several things: that the woman Darrell loves, his cousin Millicent, has jilted him and married another man; that her husband, Captain George Duke, though overtly a naval officer, is suspected of having a profitable sideline as a privateer; and that Millicent’s brother, Ringwood, though “Squire”, spends most of his time going to the devil in London.

The conversation is awkwardly interrupted by a man seeking directions to a place called Marley Water. This is also Darrell’s destination, as he has already told his companions, despite the danger of highwaymen on the intervening Compton Moor. The landlord, Samuel Pecker, gives the requested information, and the horseman rides off—leaving Pecker to shake his head over the erratic behaviour and frequent absences of Captain Duke, and Darrell to absorb the fact that he has just for the first time glimpsed Millicent’s husband.

Darrell is prevented from immediately taking his leave by the arrival on the scene of Sarah Pecker, now Samuel’s help-meet – and often torment – but once Sarah Masterson, a local widow who was housekeeper to the late squire. In this role, Sarah helped to raise the orphaned young Darrell, who is the apple of her eye. She tries frantically to dissuade him from his ride across Compton Moor, but Darrell explains gravely that he must take the York coach from Marley Water the next morning on a matter of urgent business, and goes on his way.

Barely has he departed than Sarah and Samuel find themselves confronted by—Captain George Duke, who has clearly overheard Sarah’s lament regarding Darrell and Millicent; although her embarrassment swiftly turns to anger when the Captain speaks sneeringly of Darrell as, “A good-for-nothing idling reckless ne’er do-weel.”

Meanwhile, a bewildered Samuel is taking in the fact that the Captain seems to have changed his mind about crossing Compton Moor. When the Captain insists that he has only just arrived in Compton, and was certainly not at the inn half-an-hour before, Samuel can think of only one explanation:

    “Flesh and blood doesn’t creep up to a man unawares like that!”
    Captain Duke looked very hard into the face of the speaker; looked thoughtfully, gravely, earnestly at him, with bright searching brown eyes; and then again burst out laughing louder than before. So much was he amused by the landlord’s astonished and awe-stricken face, that he laughed all the way across the low old hall—laughed as he opened the door of the oak-panelled parlour in which the genteeler visitors at the Bear were accustomed to sit—laughed as he threw himself back into the great polished oaken chair by the fire, and stretched his legs out upon the stone hearth till the heels of his boots rested against the iron dogs—laughed as he called Samuel Pecker, and could hardly order his favourite beverage, rum punch, for laughing.
    The room was empty, and it was to be observed that when the door closed upon the landlord, Captain Duke, though he still laughed, something contracted the muscles of his face, while the pleasant light died slowly out of his handsome brown eyes, and gave place to a settled gloom.
    When the punch was brought him, he drank three glasses one after another. But neither the great wood fire blazing on the wide hearth nor the steaming liquid seemed to warm him, for he shivered as he drank.
    He shivered as he drank, and presently he drew his chair still closer to the fire, planted his feet upon the two iron dogs, and sat looking darkly into the red spitting hissing blaze.
    “My incubus, my shadow, my curse!” he said. Only six words, but they expressed the hatred of a lifetime…

Captain Duke spends the rest of the evening at the Black Bear, and is still there when a bloodied and near-unconscious Darrell Markham is carried in, having been left for dead on the moor. And even as Darrell earlier first glimpsed – or thought he glimpsed – the man for whom his cousin Millicent jilted him, George Duke now first lays eyes on the man he very well knows his wife still loves…

The Captain stays only long enough to learn from the surgeon that though Darrell is gravely injured, he should live provided he is not agitated into fever, before carrying the news home to Millicent.

Millicent Duke is one of Braddon’s equivocal “heroines”, as we know from the first description of her, in which Braddon’s exasperation with the prevailing taste for fair and helplessly feminine young women wrestles with her sense of how the world was likely to treat such fragile creatures:

It is a very fair and girlish face upon which the fitful firelight trembles…with delicate features and dark blue eyes in the soft depths of which there lurks a shadow—a shadow as of tears long dried, but not forgotten… It is not easy to think of her as a married woman; there is such an air of extreme youth about her, such a girlish, almost childish timidity in her manner, that, as her husband—not too loving or tender a husband at the best of times—is apt to say, “It is as difficult to deal with Millicent as with a baby, for you never know when she may begin whimpering—like a spoilt child as she is.” There are people in Compton-on-the-Moor who remember the time when the spoilt child never whimpered, and when a gleam of spring sunshine was scarcely a brighter or more welcome thing to fall across a man’s pathway than the radiant face of Millicent Markham…

Our backstory is filled in here: how the orphaned Darrell was taken in by his uncle, Squire Markham; how he grew up as Millicent’s protector and best friend and, by insensible stages, her lover; how unwittingly he mortally offended his uncle by growing into a handsome, athletic and honourable young man, while the Squire’s only son, Ringwood, grew up “a milksop”, weak and cowardly.

Darrell’s angry intervention in Ringwood’s attempted seduction of a pretty but foolish young farmer’s daughter, which ended in a blow that neither Ringwood nor the Squire could forgive or forget – the latter all the more so because of Ringwood’s subsequent pusillanimous behaviour and telling of lies – saw Darrell banished from his childhood home. Before leaving, he promised Millicent to return and marry her, when he had made his way in the world, and received in return her promise to wait.

Not long afterwards, however, the Squire and Ringwood made the acquaintance of the dashing Captain Duke, whose rollicking humour and air of worldliness suited both Markhams so well, he became all but an inmate of the Hall, and was finally offered Millicent as a bride—her fair prettiness and her fair dowry equally suiting the Captain. Her desperate letter to Darrell going astray, eighteen-year-old Millicent was then bullied and terrorised by her father into breaking her promise; while Darrell, never receiving that agonised plea for his help, knows only that Millicent has been untrue.

The marriage turns out as might have been expected: Millicent does her best but cannot hide her indifference, or her relief when her husband is going away, or her persisting thoughts of her cousin; while he, on his returns from his voyages, takes pleasure in tormenting her—perversely resenting the absence of an emotion which he knew from the outset she never felt for him, nor ever pretended to. Never before, however, has he had such a weapon in his hands as the wounding of Darrell Markham:

    “Trembling between life and death,” repeated Millicent, in the same half-conscious tone, so piteous to hear.
    “He was! Heaven knows how he may be now. That was half-an-hour ago; the scale may be turned by this time; he may be dead!”
    As George Duke said the last word, his wife sprang from her seat, and, without once looking at him, ran hurriedly to the outer door. She had her hand upon the bolts, when she cried out in a tone of anguish, “O, no, no, no !” and dropped down on her knees, with her head leaning against the lock of the door.
    The Captain of the Vulture followed her into the passage, and watched her with hard unpitying eyes.
    “You were going to run to him!” he said, as she fell on her knees by the outer door.
    For the first time since Darrell Markham’s name had been mentioned, Millicent looked at her husband; not mournfully, not reproachfully, least of all fearfully; bold, bright, and defiant, her blue eyes looked up to his.
    “I was.”
    “Then why not go? You see I am not cruel; I do not stop you. You are free. Go! Go to your—cousin—and—your lover, Mistress Duke. Shall I open the door for you?”
    She lifted herself with an effort upon her feet, still leaning for support against the street-door. “No,” she said, “I will not go to him; I could do him no good; I might agitate him; I might kill him!”
    The Captain bit his under lip, and the triumphant light faded from his brown eyes.
    “But understand this, George Duke,” said Millicent, in a tone that was strange to her husband’s ears, “it is no fear of you which keeps me here; it is no dread of your cruel words or more cruel looks that holds me from going to his side; for if I could save him by my presence from one throb of pain—if I could give him by my love and devotion one moment’s peace and comfort, and the town of Compton were one raging fire, I would walk through that fire to do it.”

Darrell does not die, however, though his recovery is anything but rapid; yet he is able deliberately to repeat the charge first made in his delirium, that it was Captain George Duke who attacked, shot, and robbed him…

Darrell is so certain and so pertinacious in his charge that it is finally referred to a reluctant magistrate, who can barely conceal his relief when the Captain can prove an alibi—that he was at the Black Bear at the time in question. Darrell is baffled and mystified, unable to dispute this yet unequally unconvinced that he is in error. Matters are not helped by the testimony of Samuel Pecker, who again nervously insists upon his ghost-story.

With this, the enmity between Darrell and the Captain escalates to a new and dangerous level. Fortunately, word is received that the Vulture has been refitted and is ready for her next voyage; while Darrell himself, as soon as he is able, returns to London and vanishes once more from his cousin’s life.

The Captain leaves Compton a few days early, in order to oversee the final arrangements for the Vulture. To the indignation of Sarah Pecker, when he is ready to sail he insists upon Millicent taking a chilly overnight stage-coach ride in order to meet him at Marley Water and see him off. Obedient upon all but one point, Millicent does as instructed, trying to hide from herself how eager she is for the absence of her husband. Upon reaching her destination, and meeting the Captain, Millicent is unnerved to see that they are being shadowed by one of her fellow passengers, a man swathed in a great coat and a muffler, his face hidden by these garments and the shadow of his hat.

Millicent speaks of her fears to her husband, who dismisses the incident as a mere coincidence of movement, but it seems that she was right: a man later calls at the inn where they are staying until the Captain’s midnight departure, asking for him. The Captain agrees to see him, though angrily, but first hastens Millicent into another room. From there, she cannot hear what is said, only that both men have raised their voices.

The departure of the unwelcome visitor leaves the Captain with no excess time on his hands. He and Millicent walk to the docks, where the latter is assured that her husband will be gone for three months at the utmost.

It is at the moment of departure that Captain George Duke demands from his wife some token, by which she may know him again, no matter how much time has passed. Bewildered, she gives him one of her earrings, of an unusual design:

    “Remember, Millicent, the man who comes to you and calls himself your husband, yet cannot give you this diamond earring, will not be George Duke.”
    “What do you mean, George?”
    “When I return to Compton, ask me for the fellow jewel to that in your ear. If I cannot show it to you—”
    “What then, George?”
    “Drive me from your door as an impostor.”
    “But I should know you, George; what need should I have of any token to tell me who you were?”
    “You might have need of it. Strange things happen to men who lead such a life as mine. I might be taken prisoner abroad, and kept away from you for years. But whether I come back three months hence, or ten years hence, ask me for the earring, and and if I cannot produce it, do not believe in me…”

After the sailing of the Vulture, Millicent hurries back through the chill night to the inn, only to encounter the strange man along the way. Her immediate fear is that she will be robbed; but when the moonlight falls upon him, she is seized with a far greater terror:

    She stood face to face with him, rooted to the ground, a heavy languor paralysing her limbs, an unearthly chill creeping to the very roots of her hair.
    Her hands fell powerless at her sides. She could only stand white and immovable, with dilated eyes staring blankly into the man’s face. He wore a blue coat, and a three-cornered hat, thrown jauntily upon his head, so as in nowise to overshadow his face.
    She was alone, half a mile from a human habitation or human help—alone at the stroke of midnight with her husband’s ghost.
    It was no illusion of the brain; no self-deception born of a fevered imagination. There, line for line, shade for shade, stood a shadow that wore the outward seeming of George Duke.
    She reeled away from the phantom figure, tottered feebly forward for a few paces, and then summoning a desperate courage, rushed blindly on towards the quay, her garments fluttering in the sharp winter air…

Despite his promise – or threat – of a three-month absence, ten tick by without any sign of Captain George Duke. Alone most of the time in her little house, with only her dog and her novels for company, and an occasional call upon Sarah Pecker at the Black Bear to relieve her loneliness and tedium, Millicent does not know that Sarah has been unable to keep the secret confided to her, and that the story of the Captain’s ghost is all over Compton. Indeed, none of the villagers expect the Captain to return, accepting this visitation as a portent; and by the ten-month mark, even Sarah is suggesting that Millicent should think of mourning—adding to her persuasions the story of her own widowing by the sea:

    “Him as you saw upon the pier at Marley, perhaps, Miss Milly,” answered Sally solemnly, “but not Captain Duke! Such things as you and Samuel see last winter aren’t shown to folks for nothing; and it seems a’most like doubting Providence to doubt that the Captain’s been drowned. I dreamt three times that I see my first husband, Thomas Masterson, lying dead upon a bit of rock in the middle of a stormy sea; and I put on widow’s weeds after the third time.”
    “But you had news of your husband’s death, Sally, hadn’t you?”
    “No more news than his staying away seventeen year and more without sending letter or message to tell that he was living in all those years, Miss Milly; and if that ain’t news enough to make a woman a widow, I don’t know what is!”

Millicent, however, who desperately wants her husband not to return, will not allow herself the comfort of believing that he won’t…

To divert her own thoughts, Millicent pursues the matter of Sarah’s first marriage, of which she rarely speaks, and soon realises that she has opened up old wounds. She hears of Sarah’s disillusioned discovery that she had been married for her small inheritance and, far worse, her further discovery three months after her marriage that Masterson was a notorious smuggler with a price on his head. Sarah’s only consolation in the life of shame and fear she was forced to lead was her baby; but as he grew, even that was poisoned for her by the realisation that Masterson was teaching the boy his own ways:

    “I could have borne to have been trampled on myself, but I couldn’t bear to see my child going to ruin before his mother’s eyes. I told Masterson so one night. I was violent, perhaps; for I was almost wild like, and my passion carried me away. I told him that I meant to take the child away with me out of his reach, and go into service and work for him, and bring him up to be an honest man. He laughed, and said I was welcome to the brat; and I took him at his word, thinking he didn’t care. I went to sleep that night with the boy in my arms, meaning to set out early the next morning, and come back to Compton, where I had friends, and where I fancied I could get a living for myself and my darling; and I thought we might be so happy together. O, Miss Millicent, Miss Millicent, may you never know such a bitter trial as mine! When I woke from pleasant dreams about that new life which never was to be, my child was gone. His cruel father had taken him away, and I never saw either Masterson or my boy again.”
    “You waited in the village where he left you?” asked Millicent.
    “For a year and over, Miss Milly, hopin’ that he’d come back, bringing the boy with him; but no tidings ever came of him or of the child. At the end of that time I left word with the neighbours to say I was gone back to Compton; and I came straight here. I’d been housemaid at the Hall when I was a slip of a girl, and your father took me as his housekeeper, and I lived happy in the dear old house for many years, and I loved you and Master Darrell as if you’d been my own children; but I’ve never forgotten my boy…”

During this time, Millicent never hears from Darrell directly; but he does write to Sarah from time to time. By these means, she (and we), learn that he has found employment in London as secretary to a Scottish nobleman: a position not without certain dangers, since his employer was “suspected of no very strong attachment to the Hanoverian cause.” (This is, we recall about a decade after Culloden.)

The narrative of The Captain Of The Vulture now shifts perspective, and we follow Darrell on various missions carried out for the nobleman, who we know only as ‘Lord C—‘. One of these finds him carrying letters through a foggy November night. He stops at an inn in Reading, the establishment already hosting a rather riotous gathering under the aegis of a Sir Lovel Mortimer. Darrell has no interest in the baronet and his drinking companions—at least, not until he goes to the stables to check on his horse, and finds stabled there his previous horse, called Balmerino, who he had owned for seven years before he was stolen the night of the attack upon Compton Moor. The two know each other instantly.

To the landlord’s dismay, Darrell insists upon being conducted into the baronet’s presence:

    In an easy-chair before the open hearth lolled an effeminate-looking young man, in a brocade-dressing-gown, silk stockings with embroidered clocks, and shoes adorned with red heels and glittering diamond buckles that emitted purple and rainbow sparks in the firelight. He wore a flaxen wig, curled and frizzed to such a degree that it stood away from his face, round which it formed a pale-yellow frame, contrasting strongly with a pair of large restless black eyes and the blue stubble upon his slender chin…
    Sir Lovel Mortimer was as effeminate in manners as in person. He had a clear treble voice, and spoke in the languid drawling manner peculiar to the maccaronis of Ranelagh and the Ring. He was the sort of fopling one reads about in the Spectator, and would have been a spectacle alike miraculous and disgusting to good country-bred Sir Roger de Coverley…

The baronet tells Darrell that he bought the horse in question a few months previously at a fair from a man who seemed to be an elderly farmer. Darrell in turn tells the story of his attack and the losses suffered; admitting disappointment at gaining no clue to the identity of the man who robbed him. The baronet almost forces the reluctant Darrell to sup with him, and spends much of the meal probing his political convictions, a topic of conversation which Darrell cautiously evades. Finally, though, Sir Lovel agrees to return Balmerino, in exchange for Darrell’s current horse and twenty guineas.

Darrell is delighted to be astride Balmerino again, so much so that the following evening he decides to ride on in the dusk rather than cut his day of travel short—and again he pays the price. And while it is not George Duke, or his double, who attacks and robs him this time, Darrell is left with a very good idea of who it was:

When Darrell Markham recovered his senses he found himself lying on his back in a shallow dry ditch; the fog had cleared away, and the stars shone with a pale and chilly glimmer in the wintry sky. The young man’s pockets had been rifled and his pistols taken from him; but tied to the hedge above him stood the grey horse which he had left in the custody of Sir Lovel Mortimer…

Painfully, Darrell makes his way to the nearest hostelry—and discovers that the people there know even more about the identity of his attacker:

    “Was the West-country baronet a fine ladyfied little chap, with black eyes and small white hands?” he asked eagerly.
    “Yes.”
    The man looked triumphantly round at the by standers. “I’m blest if I didn’t guess as much,” he said. “It’s Captain Fanny.”

(And, not for the first time, we are left to ponder whether Braddon’s respectable middle-class readers were expected to understand the implications of her improper joke.)

After this interlude, we return to poor Millicent who, the more everyone else assumes her long-absent husband is dead, becomes all the more convinced that he isn’t: that he is staying away deliberately, allowing her to grow comfortable, so that his return will make her suffer all the more.

These passages mark some of Braddon’s most daring writing within The Captain Of The Vulture: it was not often that a heroine in a Victorian novel (albeit one set a century or so before) could get away with expressing such frank dislike of her husband, such an open wish for his death—and without any attendant guilt or lip-service paid to her duties as a wife. The Duke marriage is presented from the outset as an almost deliberate act of cruelty by the three men involved, or at best one undertaken with complete disregard for Millicent’s welfare; while she, young and ignorant as she is, soon accepts one Victorian truism in place of another: that there is no hope that she will “learn to love her husband”; and the best she can do is “suffer and be still“.

Meanwhile, at the Black Bear, Sarah Pecker is up to her eyeballs in her preparations for the Christmas rush. Tradespeople and carriers make frequent appearances at the inn’s back door, delivering their wares; pedlars and beggars likewise, there to sell, beg or steal—though under Sarah’s sharp eye, opportunities are few. One pedlar is particularly pertinacious, refusing to move on at the orders of the inn’s servant, so that an angry Sarah finally confronts him—and to the great surprise of the girl and the inn’s cook, she then meekly agrees to see the man’s wares, ordering the other two away. Shut outside the room, the others try unabashedly to eavesdrop, but can hear nothing of what seems a strangely lengthy conversation…

At last the voices die away, yet Betty and the cook find the kitchen door still locked against them; nor does Sarah reply when they call out to her. The frightened Betty finally runs to Samuel Pecker.

We get one of the novel’s nastier bits of “doubling” here, as the much bullied and put-upon Samuel responds “hopefully” to Betty’s story with an inquiry of whether his wife has been, “Took bad?” – Surely it was not a ray of joy [in his face]? comments the narrator. Samuel is even more delighted by a suggestion that the pedlar has “carried off” his wife, questioning Betty as to whether he was a large enough man to succeed in such an undertaking. It takes some effort on the part of the impatient Betty to get Samuel to bring his keys, so that they can find out what has happened; and even then he dawdles:

“You’re right, Betty,” he said; “get the lantern and I’ll come round with you. But if the man has run away with your missus, Betty,” he added argumentatively, “there’s such a many roads and by-roads round Compton, that it wouldn’t be over much good going after them…”

But Sarah at least has gone nowhere:

There was no sign of the foreign pedlar; and stretched upon the hearth in a dead swoon lay Mrs Sarah Pecker…

It takes some considerable time for Samuel and Betty to bring Sarah back to consciousness, and when they do, she seems literally a different person:

    Mrs Pecker revived very slowly; but when at last she did open her eyes, and saw the meek Samuel patiently awaiting her recovery, she burst into a sudden flood of tears, and flinging her stout arms about his neck, indifferent to the presence of either Betty or the carrier, cried out passionately,—
    “You’ve been a good husband to me, Samuel Pecker, and I haven’t been an indulgent wife to you; but folks are punished for their sins in this world as well as in the next, and I’ll try and make you more comfortable for the future; for I love you truly, my dear—indeed I do!”

And a quiet and submissive Sarah it is from this point onwards, one who goes out of her way to show her appreciation of her placid husband. She does not even react with anger when it is discovered that the pedlar robbed her of her ready cash, her watch and some silver spoons, though his haul was worth some ten or fifteen pounds. As for Samuel:

    The meek landlord of the Black Bear walked about as one in a strange but delicious dream. He had the key of his cellars in his own possession, and was allowed to drink such portions of his own liquors as he thought fit; and Samuel did not abuse the unwonted privilege, for he was naturally a sober man. He was no longer snubbed and humiliated before the face of his best customers. His tastes were consulted, his wishes were deferred to. Nice little dinners were prepared for him by Sarah’s own hands, and the same hands would even deign to mix for him a nightcap of steaming rum-punch, fragrant as the perfumed groves of Araby the blest. Mr Pecker was almost master in his own house. Sometimes this new state of things seemed well nigh too much for him. Once he went to his wife, and said to her, imploringly,—
    “Sarah, speak sharp to me, will you, please; for I feel as if I wasn’t quite right in my head…”

Some months roll away after this incident, and the narrative of The Captain Of The Vulture shifts to London, where the cousins, Ringwood and Darrell Markham, are following their very different paths. Darrell, having discovered that dissipation does nothing to make him forget Millicent, has knuckled down to his work instead, and has hopes of success as a political writer. Ringwood, meanwhile, having no personal qualities that might win him friends, is wasting his inheritance in an attempt to at least buy a few. He is beginning to taste desperation when he receives a most unexpected, and unwanted, call from his cousin. It is now eighteen months or more since George Duke was last heard of, but Darrell has only just learned of it. Like everyone in Compton, his immediate reaction is “good riddance”:

    “And what do you think of all this?” asked Ringwood.
    “What do I think? Why, that Captain George Duke, and his ship the Vulture, have met the fate that all who sail under false colours deserve. I know of those who can tell of a vessel, with the word ‘Vulture’ painted on her figurehead, that has been seen off the coast of Morocco, with the black flag flying at the fore, and a crew of Africans chained down in the hold. I know of those who can tell of a wicked traffic between the Moorish coast and the West India Islands, and who speak of places where the coming of George Duke is more dreaded than the yellow fever. Good heavens! can it be that this man has met his fate, and that Millicent is free?”

(After Braddon’s The Octoroon, we are not surprised to discover the specific nature of George Duke’s “privateering”.)

Ringwood cares nothing for his sister, and less than nothing for George Duke; but he is glad to be handed something to torment Darrell with. Curiously, he comes to the same conclusion as Millicent: that Duke is choosing to stay away as his form of torment.

The real purpose of Darrell’s call, however, is to press upon Ringwood his responsibility for Millicent, who in her husband’s absence has only the interest of the pittance secured to her upon her marriage to live on. Darrell also insists upon helping Millicent himself, although he adds that Ringwood must keep it a secret. Ringwood makes no protest to any of this, but on the verge of penury himself, he has neither the means nor the inclination to help his sister. If Darrell wants to give him money, though…

Ringwood is particularly eager for a new source of income, for he has recently made a new acquaintance before whom he is eager to cut a fashionable figure:

…he had appointed to meet a gay party at Ranelagh, the chief member of which was to be a certain West-country baronet, called Sir Lovel Mortimer, and better known in two or three taverns of rather doubtful reputation than in the houses of the aristocracy.

Ringwood is too much of a country-bumpkin to recognise certain giveaway flaws in Sir Lovel’s manners and diction: he thinks he’s hit the social jackpot, and is only too eager to accept an invitation to dine and gamble at his new friend’s lodgings; being positively honoured by the thought of losing money to a baronet.

When the door is opened by Sir Lovel’s servant, Ringwood gets a shock:

    …the speaker’s face illuminated by a feeble flicker.
    Sir Lovel Mortimer’s servant was drunk; his face was dirty; his wig pushed over his eyebrows, and singed by the candle in his hand; his cravat was twisted awry, and hung about his neck like a halter; his eyes were dim and watery from the effect of strong liquors; and it was with difficulty he kept himself erect by swaying slowly to and fro as he stood staring vacantly at his master and his master’s guests.
    But it was not the mere drunkenness of the man’s aspect which startled Ringwood Markham.
    Sir Lovel Mortimer’s servant was Captain George Duke!

Ringwood sends word of his sighting of Captain Duke to Darrell. He is out of town when the note is delivered, but as soon as he returns and reads the message, he forces his presence upon his cousin and demands an explanation of what seems to him a ridiculous lie. Though hungover, dull-witted at the best of times, and pretending to be gravely insulted by Darrell’s language as he is, Ringwood sticks to his guns—adding to his initial information just who Duke is working for; prompting Darrell in turn to tell what he knows of “the baronet”:

    “You mean to tell me, then,” he said ruefully, “that this Sir Lovel—”
    “Is no more Sir Lovel than you are,” answered Darrell: “all the fashionable breeding he can pretend to is what he has picked up on the king’s highway; and the only estate he will ever be master of in Devonshire or elsewhere will be enough stout timber to build him a gallows when his course comes to an abrupt termination. He is known to the knights of the road and the constables by the nickname of Captain Fanny, and there is little doubt the house in Chelsea to which he took you was a nest of highwaymen.”

And of course, Darrell’s mind goes back to the night he was attacked on Compton Moor—by, as he would still be prepared to swear, George Duke. He puts two-and-two together in startling fashion:

“The upshot of it is, that while we have thought George Duke was away upon the high seas, he has been hiding in London and going about the country robbing honest men. The ship Vulture is a fiction; and instead of being a merchant, a privateer, a pirate, or a slaver, George Duke is neither more nor less than a highway man and a thief.”

Except that the reader knows that there is a Vulture, at least…

Darrell succeeds in getting a warrant sworn out against Captain Fanny, but by the time Ringwood manages to pick out the correct house – having generally been rather tipsy when carried there by “Sir Lovel” – the occupants have fled. Darrell comes away with nothing more than the fact that the baronet called his servant by the name of Jeremiah.

Sir Lovel and his friends did not leave before emptying Ringwood’s pockets, however, and the young squire is forced to give up his efforts to cut a dash in London, and retreat to his ancestral halls. His experiences harden his heart: as his fortunes recover, Ringwood develops miserly tendencies, becoming tight-fisted and a hard landlord; he certainly has nothing to spare for his sister.

There is now a time-gap in the novel; and The Captain Of The Vulture resumes its narrative when George Duke has been missing almost a full seven years—long enough to be declared legally dead, and his widow, should she wish it, to legally remarry.

Ringwood’s niggardly tendencies have only grown, meanwhile: he acts as his own agent, so as not to have to pay one; and he distrusts his workers, so that he spends much time riding around his estate keeping an eye on them. On one of these rides, he catches a chill which, with his weak constitution, threatens his life. Like his late mother, Ringwood is consumptive…

Millicent moves back into her childhood home to nurse her brother, and her gentle unselfishness and obvious unhappiness evoke a glimmer of remorse in the self-centred Ringwood. Knowing himself dying, he is moved to apologise to Millicent for being such a bad brother, and for his part in forcing her into marriage. He also speaks to her of the estate which, neglected as it has been through his reluctance to spend money, will still bring her a good income—the bulk of their father’s money having been tied up in it, to keep Ringwood from wasting it (the late squire knew his son).

Ringwood also speaks to Millicent of George Duke—and insists upon writing a last letter, to be delivered to Darrell come the end of the following January, once the seven years have fully passed.

When Ringwood dies, the estate does indeed pass to Millicent: the manor house, its grounds, and its surrounding farmlands; as well as what is considered, in Compton, to be a tidy fortune. After her years of deprivation, in spite of the sorrowful event that brought it about her possession of so many solid blessings seems to Millicent almost too good to be true. There is, of course, just one drawback:

If he should come home! If, after all these years of fearful watching and waiting, these years of terror and suspense, in which she had trembled at the sound of every manly footstep, and shuddered at the sound of every voice which bore the faintest resemblance to that one voice which she dreaded to hear; if, after all, now that she had completely given him up—now that she was rich, and might perhaps by-and-by be happy—if, at this time of all others, the man who had been the scourge of her young life should return and claim her once more as his, to hold and to torture by the laws of God and man!

 

[To be continued…]

 

17/11/2016

Lady Lisle (Part 3)

ladylisle3b
    “I tell you,” cried Olivia, her voice vibrating, clear and loud, through the lofty room—“I tell you that I know all about the base and wicked plot that has been carried out by that vile tool, and I know your infamous share in it, Major Varney. Why, look at him!” she cried, with passionate vehemence, pointing to her husband as she spoke—“look at him, as he sits there in his stupid drunkenness—more brutal than the oxen that sleep in his fields—lower than the lowest brute in his stables. Good heavens! what a pitiful dupe I must have been to have been deceived by such a thing as that!”
    The Major quietly took the key from the lock of the door, and slipped it into his waistcoat pocket; then, advancing to Lady Lisle, he tried to take her hands into his.
    “Lady Lisle,” he said, “listen to me.”
    She snatched her hand indignantly from him.
    “Lady Lisle!” she cried. “Hypocrite, plotter, trickster, cheat! how dare you call me by that false and lying name! which has never—no, never, not for one hour been my own. O, fool, fool, fool!” she moaned, her rage and scorn changing to a tone of anguish. “Fool, to sell my soul for pomp and grandeur, to sacrifice an earnest and noble heart, for what—for what? For an imposter, whose name is a lie, and who fattens upon the wealth of another man.”

.

The implied past relationship between Olivia Marmaduke and Walter Remorden and the sins of the former are interestingly handled by Braddon, and in a way that does her heroine no favours. At this point she chooses to leave matters just as they stand and Olivia without excuse, as she commits just about the worst sin that a novel-heroine of her class and position can commit, jilting a good poor man for a bad rich man in an openly declared mercenary marriage. It is not for some time that we get the rest of the story: that there was indeed an exchange of promises between Olivia and Walter Remorden, just before he left to take up his curacy, and when she was barely seventeen; an exchange kept secret from Colonel Marmaduke. Because of that, and because, perhaps, of an imperfect knowledge of the girl to whom he had plighted himself, Walter made no attempt during the following two years to contact Olivia, not a visit, not a letter, not a message; while she, growing into young womanhood amidst loneliness and poverty, was left to eat her heart out—and then to harden her heart.

The wedding goes off as planned, despite Sir Rupert’s fears, and a splendid wedding it is—on externals. The bride and groom depart on their honeymoon, while those remaining for the night at Lislewood—even Mrs Walsingham—find the atmosphere much improved by the absence of the master of the house. The Major, who, after a serious conference between himself and Sir Rupert the night before, which ended with the baronet’s signing of his name to a certain document, seems to have let go of his objections to the marriage, and is in a genial mood:

    “How well Lady Lisle looked this morning!” said the Major.
    Mrs Walsingham started at the mention of the name which had once been her own. Olivia’s four sisters felt a simultaneous thrill of envy at the sound. Lady Lisle! Yes, it was really true—she was indeed Lady Lisle!

The narrative of Lady Lisle then follows Walter Remorden to his new curacy in Yorkshire, where he tries to bury the past in hard work and good service. Mr Hayward, the minister, is new to Belminster, replacing a lazy old man who neglected his duties, and consequently has much lost ground to make up: work in which his energetic, devoted young curate is invaluable to him.

Though only a minor character, Mr Hayward is entirely typical of his author who, as we have seen before in her novels, had nothing but scorn for polite hypocrisy and platitudes, and who herself knew only too well what it was like to be poor (a fact which shows itself in her sympathetic attitude towards Olivia). When she diverts into a description of how Mr Hayward goes about his work, we suddenly hear the voice that Braddon usually kept for her working-class readers:

He reprobated the vices of his people; but he took care to show them how they might be amended. He was not afraid of sin; he never shuddered at its aspect; but he hunted it down, and hand to hand with it struggled and conquered… Mr Hayward never tried to beguile grown men and woman with pretty lollipop sayings that nobody ever yet believed in. He did not tell wretched creatures living in stifling hovels, to which the pure air never penetrated, that it was a pleasant thing to be poor and comfortless, and that if they were only good they would be sure to be happy. No; he told them that they must not be contented with dirt and filth, but that they must cover over drains and break open blocked-up windows, and scrub, scour, whitewash and purify… And when all was done, and the house cleansed, and the eldest girl rescued from the wretched streets…when the little ones were in the National School, and the father had succeeded in getting a job at his own trade; then the rector set to work to teach these people how to be good Christians…

The rector’s right-hand person in all his efforts is his daughter, Blanche, who is not a pretty girl, but whose intelligence, good-humour and compassion win her wide popularity. Blanche is as tireless as her father in her labours, and also tirelessly friendly and interested in people. She takes an immediate liking to her father’s new curate who, she is quick to see, has something preying on his spirits, for all his focus and dedication. For his part, Walter finds Blanche invaluable as a companion, a friend, and a workmate. Further than that his thoughts and feelings do not carry him, whatever hers might be doing…

One day Mr Hayward consults with Walter and Blanche about a problem that has been presented to him, regarding a young man, a pupil at the local school, who was placed there more than twelve years earlier by a man who said he was the boy’s uncle, and who wanted him (he said) kept in the country for his health as well as his education, the boy having just gotten over a serious illness. After placing him at the school, the uncle paid his nephew’s fees with perfect regularity, though making only brief and infrequent visits to see him; but no new remittance has been received for some eighteen months, nor can the uncle be found. Richard Saunders is now twenty-two, and what is to be done with him?

In answer to Blanche’s eager questions, Mr Hayward explains that the young man seems to know nothing that can help them: his uncle is his only known relative, and his memory of his childhood is erratic due, it is supposed, to his long illness. He even gets frightened and upset when anyone asks him to recall the time before his illness; though, Mr Hayward assures Walter, his intellect is in no way impaired.

It is Blanche who comes up with a practical answer to the situation: getting new National Schools built is one of Mr Hayward’s pet projects, and schools need schoolmasters. With Hayward’s approval, Walter agrees to meet the young man, and sound him out about this prospect.

Richard Saunders is a fair, pale young man, so nervous and inarticulate that Walter begins to doubt the assertions about his intellect; but as he overcomes his shyness, he shows himself as he has been represented. The young man is delighted and grateful for the offer of a position at the new school, particularly as it will enable him to repay the generosity of Mr Daunton, who kindly kept him on at his own school as a boarder of sorts, despite the ceasing of his fee-payments.

A great collector of lame ducks, Blanche adopts Richard as a special project; and while she has no more success than anyone else in getting him to talk about his childhood, she does get at the reason why he won’t talk:

    “No, no, no,” cried the young man, with the same look of terror that Walter Remorden had seen in his face the day before; “no, I remember nothing of that time. My thoughts and fancies about that time are nothing more than delusions; nothing but delusions—nothing!”
    “But, Mr Saunders,” urged Blanche, her curiosity more and more excited by the young man’s strange manner, “but these these delusions, what are they?”
    “Do not ask me!” he exclaimed. “I have taken a solemn oath never to speak of them to any human being.”
    “An oath? But to whom?”
    “To my uncle George. He told me that my only chance of being saved from becoming a madman was to resolve never to speak of those things again.”

In time, Blanche’s kindness, sympathy and support have the inevitable effect upon Richard, who falls very deeply in love with her—but, as she assures him as gently as she can, hopelessly. When Walter walks into this unhappy scene, he decides to tell his own story, by way of illustrating that although it might seem like it now, this need not be the end of the world. It is during the following conversation that we learn what exactly went on between Walter and Olivia—of course, from his point of view—but still, the period of separation and silence, measuring almost three years, is revealed. It is already evident that Blanche is suffering unrequited love for Walter, as Richard is for her, and her indignation on his behalf is boundless. Walter’s response contains both an indication that he is aware of her feelings, and a tacit apology that he cannot return them.

As Walter concludes his sad story, dwelling not upon his own situation, but Olivia’s, there is a sudden cry from Richard:

    …he started from his seat, and, ghastly pale in the dusk, cried, in wild and terrified accents,—
    “Sir Rupert Lisle! Are you mad, as well as I? It is the very name—the very name—which I have neither heard nor spoken for twelve long years.”
    “What do you mean, Richard?” exclaimed Blanche Hayward, almost alarmed for the young man’s sanity.
    “I mean that when I was a child I had a dangerous fever which made me mad, and my madness was to fancy myself Sir Rupert Lisle!”

And what of Sir Rupert Lisle?—or at least, “Sir Rupert Lisle”?

Sir Rupert and Lady Lisle are away six months, travelling through Europe; and, well, if Olivia has sinned, she has her full measure of punishment in being known everywhere as the wife of a bad-tempered, petulant, drunken boor. Fortunately (at least from one perspective), Olivia’s contempt for her husband has reached such proportions it acts as a kind of armour: she so far beyond caring what he is or what he does that she does not feel his behaviour as otherwise she might.

When the newlyweds return to Lislewood, they find Mrs Walsingham on the verge of departure. She has made up her mind that it will not be fitting for her to go on living in her son’s house now that it has a new mistress. She has also taken a strong dislike to Olivia, whose worst side she has certainly seen glaringly emphasised; although whether she can admit it to herself, the thought of being separated from her son has quite as much to do with her decision. But an unexpected scene makes her alter her plans somewhat: when she grasps the significance of Mrs Walsingham’s baggage, the previously cold and detached Olivia breaks down into a storm of tears, begging her mother-in-law not to leave her. Startled and touched, Mrs Walsingham compromises, removing from the house but only so far as the village, to the house she shared with her aunt when she was Miss Claribel Merton, which she still owns.

Olivia’s life then takes on a strange, divided quality. She spends her husband’s money without stint, devising a series of lavish entertainments and filling the house with a constant stream of people; while any spare time on her hands is devoted to the welfare of Lislewood’s tenants. What she won’t do is sit still. During this time a tacit truce is called between Olivia and Major Varney, who quietly makes himself useful to her in all sorts of ways, and manages to lull the suspicions which Olivia conceived about him upon their first acquaintance.

But a deeply ugly incident is about to tear the mask from more person than one…

Olivia is riding home one day when she is witness to a confrontation between Lislewood’s lodge-keeper and a woman in a state of extreme distress. The lodge-keeper explains that Sir Rupert has already refused to see the woman, and that he has been trying to send her away as ordered, but she won’t go—even though Sir Rupert has threatened to have her arrested.

Seeing something more in this than a simple request for charity, Olivia takes the woman under her own protection. Getting a straight story out of her is almost impossible, though between tears and excuses the woman finally reveals herself as Rachel Arnold. Olivia knows well the story of Sir Rupert and Gilbert Arnold, but is inclined to believe the hysterical woman when she swears she knew nothing of her husband’s plot. Mrs Arnold further explains that, once they arrived in America, Arnold abandoned her; she subsequently found work as a servant and scraped together enough money for a passage home. Now she asks only for enough to live upon, which she seems to feel that Sir Rupert owes her for reasons that Olivia can’t quite get at…

A puzzled Olivia takes the direct route of leading Mrs Arnold to Sir Rupert, who is playing billiards with Major Varney and several other guests. The effect of Mrs Arnold’s appearance is electric: instantly the baronet flies into a violent rage, cursing her and Olivia before committing an act that horrifies the involuntary witnesses to this scene:

The poor creature, still kneeling on the ground and clinging to his hand, lifted up her face in supplication as she spoke. In a mad fury the Baronet, with his disengaged fist, struck the wretched woman full in the face; so violently, that the blood trickled fast from a cut across her upper lip…

And well as he he knows the baronet—better, indeed, than anyone else—even Major Varney is shocked by this; so very shocked, he is provoked into showing a side of himself usually carefully concealed:

…he caught Sir Rupert Lisle by the collar of his coat and flung him violently against the wall of the room. “You ruffian!” he cried, “you mean pitiful hound! you contemptible villain! without one redeeming touch of common humanity! I swear to you that, if I had known what you really are, you might have rotted piecemeal in the garret where I found you before I would have soiled my hands by lifting a finger of them to help you. I don’t believe in all Newgate there is a wretch who would have done what you did just at this moment. Dog! I loathe and detest you! and hate myself for being mixed up with you!”

But we should not be misled by this into sympathy for Major Varney who, when he cools down, and sees the comfortable and lucrative nest he has been at such pains to acquire for himself and his wife threatened, will reveal himself every bit as vile and contemptible as Sir Rupert. His methods are merely less crude.

Olivia has Mrs Arnold carried to a room and arranges medical attendance for her—and she needs it. The physical and emotional scene with Sir Rupert, coming on top of exhaustion and even starvation, reduces her to a pitiful condition of suffering. The doctor—who knew her when she was the abused wife of Gilbert Arnold—tells Olivia there is little hope.

Sir Rupert seems eager to make what amends he can for his actions, not opposing Mrs Arnold’s residence under his roof, and constantly inquiring after her health. He seems particularly interested in what she talks about… The one thing he won’t do is see her himself, despite her entreaties.

At this time the baronet finds himself back in his old position of being wholly reliant upon Major Varney—and wholly in fear of him. All his old habits, his tendency to check with the Major before he speaks or acts, re-emerge. And it is to the Major he turns for advice about the sick woman:

    “What can I do?” he said. “She’s always worrying,—sending sickly romantic messages about wanting to be forgiven, and all such foolery. And what do I care about seeing her, you know?” he whined, in his peevish treble voice.
    “Very little, I should think, Sir Rupert,” replied the Major. “I can see the glitter of that superb sapphire ring upon your right hand at this moment. I’ve heard you say that you gave a hundred and twenty napoleons for that sapphire in the Rue de la Paix, and it was the ring that cut Rachel Arnold so severely over the mouth. No, I should think you would scarcely care about seeing your—your old servant.”
    “I’ll tell you what,” muttered Sir Rupert, “I think you might keep your tongue between your teeth. You’ve made a good thing out of it…”
    “As to what I get out of you, or what I may intend to get out of you in time to come,” said the Major, looking full at Sir Rupert, “that is of very little moment. But remember, that I have got that out of you which makes you as much my slave as if I had bought you for so many dollars in the Southern States of America; as much my dog as if I had paid a dog-fancier for you, and had you chained and padlocked in my kennel.”

Major Varney makes it his business to visit Mrs Arnold, who recoils in terror at the sight of him, and learns from the weary, disinterested servant-girl assigned to attend her that she is much given to wild, rambling talk about her son. The Major then requests a consultation with the doctor, who emerges from it agreeing that there should be no difficulty acquiring the necessary certificate…

One day, however, Mrs Arnold’s talk takes another direction: she demands to see Lady Lisle, even going to the length of threatening the maid with a knife when she cannot immediately get her way. Betsy Jane flees the room in terror and does as she is bid, but Mrs Arnold repudiates her visitor, demanding the other Lady Lisle. Olivia explains to her that Mrs Walsingham is away from her home in the village for a few days, which causes Mrs Arnold to cry out in despair, afraid that she may die before she can unburden herself. Olivia offers to hear the woman’s confession, but this only distresses Mrs Arnold even more: she sobs that Olivia has been injured too, and could never forgive her.

Finally Mrs Arnold agrees to tell her secret. Olivia sends Betsy Jane away, and listens to an incredible story…

Mrs Arnold chose her moment well: Olivia was alone in the house, Major Varney and Sir Rupert having gone out for the day; it is hardly to be supposed that she would have been permitted a private interview with the sick woman otherwise. When the men return, Sir Rupert is drunk; nothing unusual these days. He turns on Olivia:

    “Curse her for a kill-joy; what do I want with her white face and great black eyes, and her grand airs? I’ll teach her to treat me to her airs. I’ll make her know who I am, d–n her!”
    So vile a coward was he on ordinary occasions, that the factitious audacity engendered of strong drink was a surprise to himself. He felt proud of his own temerity, and he slapped his hand upon his thigh with a triumphant gesture as he looked about him.
    Lady Lisle rose from her low chair and walked straight over to the young man.
    “Suppose I do know who you are!” she said, standing before him, and looking down at his face with an expression of unutterable disgust.

Sir Rupert does not immediately grasp her meaning, but Major Varney does. He quickly intervenes, trying to scoff away the implication, to convince her that she has been listening to an hysterical, deluded woman and has become deluded herself, but Olivia is having none of it. Major Varney then turns judicial, forcing Olivia to admit that she has no proof of what she asserts:

    “You say that our friend there is not the real Baronet, and that the actual Sir Rupert Lisle is now living. May I ask where?”
    “I cannot tell you?”
    “I thought not,” murmured the Major. “It is not in your power to produce him, and it is not likely to be in your power to produce him, eh?”
    “I fear not.”
    “Good. And pray may I ask when Mrs Rachel Arnold last saw him alive?”
    “When he was removed from the hospital, upwards of fifteen years ago.”
    “Fifteen years!” repeated Major Varney; “a long time, my dear Lady Lisle. And on the strength of the ravings of a woman who has been pronounced by her medical attendant to be out of her mind and without any other proof whatsoever, you would charge your husband as an imposter. We are not afraid of you, Lady Lisle, for our position rests upon substantial proof, and if you choose to bring forward the witness of a madwoman, we can show the evidence of that madwoman’s husband, in the shape of the formal deposition made by Gilbert Arnold, and duly signed by him, in the presence of the Baronet’s lawyers.
    “Heaven help me!” cried Olivia, clasping her hands together passionately; “my instinct tells me that the woman has spoken the truth.”
    “Your instinct would go very little way towards the support of your case in a court of law, my dear Lady Lisle,” said the Major. “We are not afraid of you, are we, my Rupert? We are not afraid of you, or of Mrs Arnold either; indeed, there is only one person whom Sir Rupert Lisle need fear, and that is Major Granville Varney.”

And it is he who Olivia also needs to fear, as he makes brutally clear to her. Olivia is a witness to the terrified Mrs Arnold’s forcible removal to the County Lunatic Asylum, with the Major warning her that a similar fate might be arranged for her, if she isn’t very careful…

This is clearly a favourite tactic of the Major: we know already that it was with threats of confinement that Richard Saunders was taught to keep silent about his delusions. And while this is all very melodramatic in context, we should note that during the 19th century it was terrifyingly easy—if you were a man with money—to get people committed against their wills, and that this was not an uncommon way for inconvenient relatives and other connections (usually women, so given to “hysteria”, but not always) to be disposed of. The Major’s threat has weight behind it, and Olivia knows it.

But when things seem darkest for her—when the Major’s triumph seems absolute—we learn that Nemesis is on her way…

Nemeses, actually—one in the form of a grim, gaunt man with murder in his heart, recently returned from America, who must make his way by foot from Liverpool to Lislewood, but who is sustained through hunger, cold and exhaustion by his rage and hatred. Finally he has a stroke of luck when he falls in with a troop of gipsies who happen to be heading his way, and who amicably take him in and offer him shelter and food. The man, who calls himself John Andrews, soon realises that something is wrong within the troop: there is a young woman whose wild, muttered talk of vengeance sounds remarkably like his own, and whose story Andrews manages to extract from the leader of the troop, a man named Abraham. The young woman once had a sister, a virtuous and most beloved sister, who had the grave misfortune to attract the obsessive attention of a dissolute young gentleman, and could not with all her efforts avoid him:

“Half way between the town and the common, where the road was most lonesome , we found her lying in the shallow water, cold and dead. There was footmarks upon the bit of grass alongside of the ditch, a woman’s and a man’s, and there was marks of horses’ hoofs upon the road. The grass was trodden down as if there’d been a struggle, and a broken riding-whip lay among the reeds hard by. I’ve kept that whip ever since, and it was his. I knew it by the gold handle, shaped the same as his crest.”

John Andrews has been listening with the greatest of attention ever since the geography of the story told by Abraham was made clear to him; and when he hears of the young man of the whip, and his older friend, and how they laughed at Abraham when he confronted them—and how Abraham ended up serving three months for assault—he can contain himself no longer:

    “But I do mind his name,” answered the other, with a strange eagerness, “and if you won’t tell it me, I’ll tell it to you.”
    “You!” exclaimed Abraham; “how should you know it?”
    “His name is Sir Rupert Lisle,” answered Andrews; “and he lives at Lislewood Park, about nine miles from here, and the friend you see along with him was a stout chap in a yellow waistcoat, with yellow chains and lockets hanging all about it, and his name is Granville Varney, and he’s the biggest villain as walks this sinful earth!” cried John Andrews, his voice rising with every word, until it ended in a savage scream..

If we were so inclined, we might at this point say of Sir Rupert Lisle and Major Granville Varney, “God help them both”; but I doubt we’ll be so inclined…

Braddon never hesitates to dispense rough justice, and in this case she has her twin Nemeses catch up with their respective quarries on a dark and lonely road between Brighton and Lislewood; Major Varney is driving their open carriage, and Sir Rupert Lisle is in an alcoholic stupor. The physical confrontation between Granville Varney and Gilbert Arnold ends with a pistol-shot to the face, and a corpse rolled down a long slope into a stagnant pond and plundered of its ready cash; although the pocket-book chained to the Major’s person must stay where it is. Abraham the gipsy, meanwhile, more intent upon something that looks like an accident, sends the carriage and its insensible occupant careening down the dangerous road…

It is some days before the Major’s body is found. When the pocket-book is inspected, found within it is a signed and witnessed statement from James Arnold, declaring the imposture, and that the real Sir Rupert Lisle may be found in the county of York. James Arnold himself, crushed and broken by the overturning of his carriage, lingers some days; long enough to confirm the truth of his statement; while the signatory witness to the undated confession—none other than Alfred Salamons, who grieves most sincerely for the Major—boldly asserts that it was only very recently that he became aware of the substitution and, being unable to find any trace of the missing Sir Rupert, held his peace.

The law eventually catches up with Gilbert Arnold, who has in his possession objects that make his guilt clear enough. Having carried through his plan of revenge, Arnold is almost disinterested in the grim fate that necessarily awaits him…

Curiously, however, none of the novel’s other transgressors are punished. We never, for one, hear another word about Abraham, who slips quietly from the narrative with the rest of his troop.

But Braddon’s most interesting non-fate is reserved for Mrs Varney who, when all is said and done, is in many ways the most intriguing character in Lady Lisle, albeit that her creator never dares bring her out into the clear light of day. No wonder. Though never an active participant—at least, not when we are watching—Mrs Varney is au fait with all the Major’s schemes, and benefits from them. Furthermore, what we already know by inference is finally spelled out here, that she was the first Mrs Walsingham, an “infamous woman” even before she entrapped the reckless young officer into marriage; and that she and Major Varney were therefore living in sin. Yet for all this, Braddon is prepared to present the Varneys as very sincerely in love; even though, as we belatedly learn, the Major “married” the lady for payment, thus assuming her support—this being the service he rendered Arthur Walsingham, and subsequently held over his head—and to allow that Mrs Varney’s grief at her husband’s death is equally sincere.

(We do not know whether the Varneys marry after Walsingham’s death. Of course, Braddon herself was living in sin at this point in her life, and probably didn’t think that marital status necessarily spoke to the true state of a relationship.)

With the Major gone, Mrs Varney turns Arthur Walsingham’s letters over to Claribel, so that they may finally be destroyed—and then she, too, is allowed simply to walk away, and to live in comfort for the rest of her life on the proceeds of the Major’s wrongdoing: presumably sharing her inheritance with her brother, Alfred Salamons, who likewise gets away scot-free!

(I should, perhaps, mention that it was Mr Salamons who took on the role of “Uncle George Saunders”…)

But while Braddon amuses herself with these background details, she also lets all of her good (or perhaps we should say, “better”) characters off their various hooks. Her plot-threads come neatly together when, after the discovery of James Arnold’s confession, Claribel Walsingham advertises for anyone knowing anything of Sir Rupert Lisle—an advertisement which comes to the attention of Walter Remorden…

So poor Claribel finds her real son at last; the unfortunate Rachel Arnold is released from her incarceration, and placed once more in her old home, where she recovers her health and even her spirits (once, Braddon implies but does not say, her husband and son are both safely dead); Walter returns to Lislewood to find Olivia a widow; and in the year that must pass before the reconciled lovers may marry, Blanche Hayward, recognising the futility of her first love, strives to banish it from her heart, and succeeds so well that she is able, in good faith, eventually to accept the second proposal of marriage made to her by “Richard Saunders”.

One bright morning, there is a double wedding at Lislewood Church:

    …there is no fashionable crowd, no long string of carriages; only a simple procession of two happy couples, attended by about a dozen friends. First, Mr Hayward’s daughter, Blanche, leaning upon the arm of Sir Rupert Lisle, and smiling brightly on the schoolchildren, who throw their flowers under her feet; while close behind them comes Walter Remorden, with Olivia by his side. Colonel Marmaduke has given his daughter into the curate’s hands with a pride and happiness he never felt in the marriage which seemed such a splendid one.
    The worthy rector of Lislewood obtained a better living from the bishop of the diocese, and abandoned the pleasant rectory, shut in by shady gardens, and close under the shadow of the grey old church tower, to Walter Remorden and his wife.
    The poor of Lislewood learned to bless the day which brought them Blanche, Lady Lisle; the third who had borne that name within twenty years…

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14/11/2016

Lady Lisle (Part 2)

ladylisle1b
 
    “I can say nothing plainer than this, Mrs Walsingham—I believe the young man now living with Gilbert Arnold, the ex-poacher, the sham Methodist parson, to be no son of his; I believe him to be the child of parents in a superior rank of life, and I believe him to be the victim of some diabolical plot, some hideous conspiracy, at the bottom of which is Mr Gilbert Arnold. This, Mrs Walsingham, is what I believe; and until you yourself have seen the boy, I will say no more.”
    “O let me see him! Take me to him, I implore you! Now—this moment—this very moment! The suspense will kill me!”
    “My dear madam, I rely upon your Christian forbearance—your self-control. This is not a matter in which impulse can serve us. One rash step might destroy all. Patience and caution are vitally necessary to us. Remember we have to meet cunning with cunning—to combat the ruses of others by other ruses of our own. Before you see the young man, nothing can possibly be done. I shall trust entirely to your instinct as a mother. See him, talk to him, examine every feature, watch every look, and if after that you say to me, ‘Granville Varney, that young man is my son, Sir Rupert Lisle’, I will move heaven and earth to prove the young man’s identity to the world, and reinstate him in his rights.”

 
 
After the death of Arthur Walsingham, the narrative of Lady Lisle shifts to London, and takes an interest in a certain Joseph Slogood, who has set himself up as an Independent minister, and found a measure of success in this capacity amongst the local people; though not everyone cares for his violent, denunciatory style, in which some claim to find not only vulgarity and profanity, but blasphemy. But still Mr Slogood fills his pews.

After one sermon, Mr Slogood gets a nasty shock in the form of a past acquaintance—who knows him under at least two other names. This particular acquaintance expresses an interest in a boy raised by Mr Slogood; he has heard of this boy through a mutual acquaintance, a Mr Salamons, and has a desire to see him.

Mr Slogood takes his visitor to a house in the vicinity of his chapel, and then up to a small, grimy room on the first floor, where they find a young man of about twenty years of age:

    “My dear young friend,” he murmured softly, gazing at the young man with an expression of supreme compassion, “they don’t treat you well—they don’t treat you well.”
    The dear young friend sprang from his chair with a bound, and faced the Major. His pale sickly face lighted up at the sight of the fat rosy cheeks and the shining yellow moustache.
    “At last,” he exclaimed,—“you’ve come at last. I’m sick of this hole,—I’m sick of all this juggling and conjuring. Who am I, and what am I, and what’s the difference between me and other people?”
    The young man’s face flushed with a faint, unhealthy crimson as he spoke. His pale blue eyes dilated, and his thin bloodless lips quivered nervously. The Major watched him with a smile, nodded gently, and murmured to himself, “Salamons is very clever, Alfred Salamons is a great creature.”

And then the Major sits down with his young friend and tells him everything he wants to hear—more than he ever expected to hear, even in his wildest dreams—that indeed, he is not like other people; that Joseph Slogood is not his father, though he has posed as such; and that the “minister” has been guilty of a great crime, in withholding from him his true identity and all that he is entitled to on account of his birth. Slogood’s outrage and indignation, which come very close to bursting free during this speech, are quelled with a reference to a Mr Bird…

The young man, who now looks upon the Major as his preserver, his rescuer, his good angel, swears eternal fidelity to his interests, and agrees to remain patient for just a while longer, in the face of the Major’s promise that all will shortly be revealed.

The Major then rejoins his wife in their house in Kensington Gore, finding the lady in a dissatisfied mood. The couple’s recent hand-to-mouth existence has worn very thin for her; so much so, she finds herself thinking longingly of a return to the stage: anything being better than having to rely on the Major’s luck at the card-table and race-track.

Mrs Varney is both startled and sceptical when her husband declares that they are done both with India, and with their present peripatetic existence; that within a very short period of time, they will be able to settle down permanently, and live luxuriously on the bounty of Sir Rupert Lisle:

    Mrs Varney’s black eyes opened to their widest extent. “Sir Rupert—?”
    “Lisle,” said the Major. “That injured young man will have to thank me for his restoration to name and fortune. Poor dear child! he had very nearly fallen victim to an infamous conspiracy.”
    “But,” exclaimed Mrs Varney, “you will never—”
    “Suffer the poor boy to be separated from his devoted mother, to be deprived of his place in life, to be robbed even of his name amongst men. No, my Adeline, never!” said the Major, pulling his moustache in a transport of virtuous indignation.

There is, it turns out, a reason why the Major has chosen this particular time to take action: he directs his wife’s attention to the newspaper, where the firm of solicitors that has long represented the Lisles is advertising for Major Granville Varney. The Major does not respond to this appeal directly, but instead writes to Mrs Walsingham, explaining that he dislikes lawyers, but would be delighted to see her if he can serve her in any way. To his puzzled wife he explains that he has been watching for such a notice since hearing of Arthur Walsingham’s death:

“This advertisement…convinces me that my poor foolish Arthur spoke before he died. Dear boy, it was like him to speak—it was like him to die; he has always been consistent, and he has been very useful to me. O Adeline! no man would ever commit a punishable offence, if he knew what a nice little income may be made out of the peccadilloes of others.”

Mrs Walsingham responds almost immediately, calling as suggested, and impatiently waving aside the Major’s condolences and his explanation of his failure to call, since he and his wife have only just returned from India, you see… Mrs Walsingham tells him of her husband’s last words—that he said so much, but no more, thus soothing away the Major’s one concern—and begs him to tell her whatever he knows. To this, the Major expresses great surprise; how should he know anything? Even in the unlikely, the very unlikely event that Sir Rupert is still alive? And if had any such knowledge, what should he gain from concealing it?—no more than Walsingham himself.

Despite his denials, the Major manages to convey a hint that he does know something; although he does not admit it until he has driven Mrs Walsingham almost frantic, and his admission causes his visitor to fall into a fainting-fit. When she recovers, she pulls herself together, and demands sternly that the Major be explicit with her. Emphasising again that he has no real information to go on, only his own excellent memory for faces, he tells Mrs Walsingham about a young man glimpsed recently at the theatre, who in his judgement bore a startling resemblance to Sir Rupert Lisle, even allowing for the passage of years. As luck would have it, his servant, Mr Salamons, was in the pit that night, and therefore available to undertake the task of finding out all about the young man in question. Salamons followed his quarry to his home, discovering that his name was Slogood, the son of a preacher calling himself Joseph Slogood—but in whom Salamons recognised the former lodge-keeper of Lislewood.

Of course, adds the Major, this proves nothing, since there was always a striking resemblance between Rupert Lisle and James Arnold—at least, he always thought so, though he sees that Mrs Walsingham disagrees—but the suspicious behaviour of Gilbert Arnold, his angry refusal to let him see his son, raised a question in the Major’s mind. He managed to lure Arnold away from home and see the young man for himself—coming away convinced that whoever he might be, he was no son of Arnold.

More than this, the Major will not say. He tells Mrs Walsingham sternly that it is all up to her—her memory of her son, the instinct of the mother’s heart. Then, far more gently, he promises to support her through the coming ordeal:

The Major took both Mrs Walsingham’s hands in his and pressed them affectionately. He looked so brimming over with benevolence, so overflowing with devoted attachment to the cause of oppressed innocence, that the most suspicious of women could scarcely have doubted him; and Claribel Walsingham had never suspected anybody in her life. She looked at the Major with confiding earnestness, as to a guardian angel, and as she looked up, the sun, shining through a window behind him, lit up his yellow hair, and seemed to encircle his handsome head with an aureole of golden light…

At the house near the chapel, the invaluable Mr Salamons is waiting, having taken steps to ensure that both Joseph Slogood and his unfortunate wife are away from home when the Major brings the trembling Mrs Walsingham to see the house’s other occupant. In solemn silence, the three make their way to the small room at the top of the stairs. The two men stand back, allowing Mrs Walsingham to advance:

    The young man with the pale face and fair hair had thrown himself upon the bed, and lay with his head on his arm in a sound sleep. His flaxen hair, which grew rather long, had fallen away from his low, narrow forehead. His clothes, though rather shabby, were of the prevailing fashion, and such as only a gentleman’s son would wear. His hands were white and delicate…
    Mrs Walsingham uttered a faint scream, and, rushing to the bed, fell on her knees, and lifting the fair face in her arms, kissed the young man’s forehead passionately. He awoke with a startled look in his widely-opened blue eyes, and stared about him wildly. It was rather a delicate regular face on which the widow looked so tenderly, but it was a face that gave no promise of a powerful intellect.
    “My poor boy! my poor injured boy!” said Major Varney, “remember what I told you the other night, and prepare yourself.”
    “Yes, yes,” cried the young man; “yes, I know. And you are my mother,” he added, turning to Claribel…

So let’s see—

So far in Lady Lisle we’ve had bigamy and blackmail and murder, to name only the outright crimes, and ignoring for the moment instances of immorality and other dishonourable conduct; but what else we may have had remains for quite some time delightfully ambiguous.

Certainly the implication is clear enough, yet Braddon tells her tale so that we cannot be quite sure. We have had, after all, Sir Rupert Lisle declared both dead and alive, in the aftermath of his accident; and such is the Major’s handling of the incident, there is a possibility that Arthur Walsingham’s dying declaration was based upon what he thought he knew, rather than his actual knowledge. Even the nasty crack about the young man’s lack of intellect could apply either to Rupert Lisle or James Arnold. As for the identification—well, we know better than to rely upon Mrs Walsingham, for all the Major’s unctuous speeches about “a mother’s heart”. And it will be some considerable time yet before the narrative tips its hand one way or the other.

The statement made by Gilbert Arnold—once Major Varney has manoeuvred the other participants into agreeing to an immunity from prosecution, in exchange for a full statement and proof of the baronet’s identity—supports either theory. According to Arnold, he found Sir Rupert after his accident, and spirited him away. He had always been struck by the resemblance between his boy and Rupert Lisle (a resemblance which the helpful Mrs Walsingham has again indignantly repudiated, in making her identification), and thought that something might be made out of it:

    “I picked him up, took him home, and kep’ him hid for a day or two, bein’ all that time queer in his head and knowin’ nothing nor no one; and then I contrived to take him to London by the train one night. I put him into a hospital there, and he picked up and got round in a few months, and then I moved up to London myself, taking my wife and child with me.”
    “And what did you mean to do with the two boys?” asked the Major.
    “Why, I meant to let the time slip by till they grew older and bigger; and when there was a chance of my lady there having forgotten the looks of hers, I meant to have gone to her and told her as how I’d found him a poor lad in London streets, and how I thought he was stole by gipsies, and my boy would have been taught his lesson, and would have bore me out in what I said, and then my boy would have passed as Sir Rupert Lisle, and been master of a fine house and a fine fortune.”
    “But your boy died?”
    “Yes, a twelvemonth after Sir Rupert’s accident he took ill of a fever and died. There, will that do?”

In support of his statement, Arnold produces the clothes Sir Rupert was wearing on the day of his accident; while inquiries at the hospital locate a long-serving nurse with vague memories of a small boy with a head injury, who seemed to be suffering delusions, and his rough, offensive father.

Through various disapproving lawyers, all this is conveyed to the incumbent, the elderly and childless Sir Launcelot Lisle—still living in Italy—who accepts the identification and surrenders his position, and even offers to restore the income he has enjoyed from the estate; but this offer Sir Rupert, on the advice of Major Varney, rejects.

And so Sir Rupert is received again at Lislewood Park:

    The servants were ranged in the hall waiting to welcome their master. How they all exclaimed when they saw the pale-faced young gentleman, whom his mamma and Major Varney led into the house! How little Sir Rupert had changed, they said. He had only grown taller, and perhaps, if anything, handsomer. The young Baronet was a little embarrassed by their honest greetings, and seemed to look to his champion, the Major, for assistance.
    A close observer would not have been long in the society of the young man without discovering that he appeared to appeal to Major Varney on every occasion, however trifling. He was leaning on Major Varney’s arm when he pointed out to his mother…the portrait of his father in the dining-room, the oriel window in the library, in which he had been so fond of sitting when a little boy…

And while Sir Rupert Lisle settles down at Lislewood Park—albeit not without displaying some awkwardness and ignorance about his surroundings and his expected behaviour, natural enough in one raised by Gilbert Arnold—of course Major and Mrs Varney settle down there too, after all the Major has done for the Lisles. Mrs Walsingham, though various points about her restored son wound and puzzle her—the effect of evil associations, which will wear away in time, the understanding Major assures her—is at peace at last. The only person who isn’t happy is young Arthur Walsingham, called home from Eton to meet his half-brother, and still grieving for his father. Arthur is unimpressed by the baronet, and suspicious and wary of the Major, who goes out of his way to charm the boy but, for perhaps the first time in all his endeavours, fails utterly.

Nor does Arthur hesitate to speak his mind to his horrified mother:

    “Get rid of him? My dear Arthur, do you forget the part he has taken in the restoration of my son? Do you forget that to him we owe the discovery of the vile plot against my boy? How can we ever sufficiently prove our gratitude to Major Varney?”
    The boy shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I suppose you’re right, mother,” he said; “but if I were you, I’d give the Major a few thousands as a repayment for his services, and kick him out of doors.”
    “Arthur! As if he would accept money!”
    “Not from you, very likely, mother; and shall I tell you why not? He knows that he will get double and treble from Sir Rupert Lisle. My brother is little better than a puppet in his hands.”

A brief respite from the Major is granted the household when he travels to London to see Gilbert Arnold for one last time. Sir Rupert baulks at giving Arnold money, but as usual he does as the Major tells him, and writes a cheque for six hundred pounds. Arnold, who had not calculated upon being cut off completely from the restored Sir Rupert, is in an angry, resentful mood. It recedes slightly when the Major requests him to write a receipt for the six hundred—then comes back with a vengeance when the Major informs him that he will, without delay, pack up himself, his wife, and his possessions, and embark for America—and not, if he knows what’s good for him, ever come back. Compelled by the thought of the money, Arnold obeys; but just as the ship is to sail – and having waited until then to make sure of his collaborator’s departure – Major Varney hands over a mere three hundred pounds:

    “And when this here’s gone, what am I to do?” roared Gilbert, clutching hold of the Major’s coat-sleeve, as if he would have detained him by violence.
    “What are you to do?” said Major Varney, turning round, as he stood on the topmost rung of the ladder, “rot, starve, steal, die in a workhouse, or live in a gaol! I’ve done with you!

The reappearance of the long-lost Sir Rupert Lisle is naturally a bombshell in district of Lislewood; the discovery that the young baronet is “sufficiently good-looking” as well as titled and rich of interest in more households than one. Once over his initial apprehensions, Sir Rupert begins to explore his neighbourhood; and he causes a variety of emotions under one roof, and heart-burnings in all the rest, when he falls in love with the youngest daughter of Colonel Marmaduke.

Colonel Marmaduke is not a pleasant man, violent with almost everyone, including his five daughters. Circumstances have seen the Colonel’s income dwindle to vanishing point; the Miss Marmadukes have lived all their lives in a state of poverty, with few joys at home and fewer abroad, since their father’s pride will not allow them to venture out in any carriage but their own, and they can no longer afford to keep one. Long, dreary days are their almost unchanging portion, and their only expectation for the future.

Four of the Miss Marmadukes resemble their mother in both looks and disposition, which does nothing to endear them to their father; the youngest is as unlike them as possible: dark, attractive, and spirited; as proud as her father, and with his temper; not merely unquailing in the face of the Colonel’s frequent outbursts, but given to reading the riot act over him for his own rough language and behaviour.

Olivia is, naturally, her father’s pet, much to the indignation of her well-behaved but spiritless sisters.

Olivia is, in addition, her creator’s pet; sort of:

What shall I say of my heroine? for, unfortunately, faulty and imperfect as she is as this young lady may be, she is nevertheless my heroine. What shall I say of her? She has by no means an amiable temper. She is vehement and impulsive. But, on the other hand, she is generous and truthful…

We shall see a great deal more of Olivia’s faults before we see anything of her virtues: her behaviour, indeed, is of a kind to put her beyond the pale with many of Braddon’s brother- and sister-novelists (always with the exception of her contemporary and rival, Wilkie Collins, who himself had a soft spot for flawed, headstrong young women), and see her cast, most likely, in the role of the good girl’s foil.

Olivia is much given to riding out alone, albeit on a bony old horse and in a made-over habit of her mother’s; and on one of these expeditions she encounters Sir Rupert Lisle. She isn’t impressed, either with his uncertain horsemanship, his evident fear when her dog briefly worries his horse, or the language in which he expresses that fear.

Unfortunately, Sir Rupert is impressed; so impressed, the next day he forces himself upon the Marmadukes in an ill-timed morning-call:

    “I know I’ve come too early,” he said, “and I’ve caught you all in your morning gowns, as he said I should, and he said I oughtn’t to come till one o’clock; but I couldn’t wait any longer, and I should have come last night, only he wouldn’t let me.”
    During the delivery of this very obscure speech, the young Baronet grew every moment redder in the face. Insolent and self-sufficient as he usually was, he seemed today affected by a painful sense of his own insignificance…

But he gets over that, chiefly by dwelling on his various material advantages and the Marmadukes’ poverty. Presents of all sorts rain upon Olivia, and when he discovers that the Marmadukes do not dine out or attend other entertainments, Sir Rupert concocts wild schemes of having them come to stay in his house. When Major Varney attempts to dissuade him, reproving him at the same time for the inappropriate violence of his language, it provokes a startling explosion:

    “Rupert!” exclaimed his mother, “can you forget?”
    “O, I don’t forget anything,” said the Baronet; “people take precious care that I don’t forget anything. My banker could tell how often I get reminded of things; but as to that,” he added, turning to the Major, “you’re free to stay as long as you like, and eat and drink what you like, and to get all out of me that you can, but I won’t be interfered with when I set my mind on a thing. Do you hear me? I won’t be interfered with.”
    The Baronet walked out of the room, slamming the door after him. It was the first time he had ever resisted Major Varney’s authority by so much as a word…

We can only be surprised at the experienced Major’s underestimation of the effect that sexual attraction might have upon the feckless young man, for all that he dignifies his passion for Olivia under the title of “love”. Trying to rectify his error, the Major makes a point of seeking Olivia’s acquaintance, and for the second time in recent weeks finds himself confronted by someone wholly unimpressed by him, and who does not bother to hide it. Recognising in Olivia not only an inconvenience to the comfortable unfolding of his plans, but potentially a formidable adversary, he does his best to undermine her influence over Sir Rupert, but without success.

(We get a typical Braddon moment here when the Major temporarily separates Olivia from Sir Rupert by inviting her to play a game of chess—and much to his surprise and indignation, she beats him.)

But if Sir Rupert is not to be put off by Olivia’s own constant rudeness towards him, and her habit of laughing at him, the Major’s criticism can have little effect. Shortly afterwards, during another meeting on horseback, Sir Rupert blurts out a graceless proposal, offering to make her the richest woman in Sussex.

And Olivia—after coolly noting that not a word of love has been spoken, either offered or asked for—accepts him.

The announcement of the engagement has a curious effect in both affected households. When it is greeted with dismay and doubt under his own roof, Sir Rupert grows furiously angry. Most of his tirade is aimed at the Major, whose silence in the face of it makes Sir Rupert foolishly believe that he has at last put him in his place. A later confrontation, when the two are alone, disabuses him of this notion, and leaves him pale and shaken. Nevertheless, Sir Rupert refuses the Major’s command to break off his engagement, which prompts a midnight visit from the ubiquitous Mr Salamons:

    “Why, you see, Sir Rupert,” said the valet, looking round the room cautiously… “what I’ve got to tell you is a bit of a secret, perhaps I’d better whisper it.”
    Mr Salamons bent his lips close to the Baronet’s ear, and whispered two or three sentences.
    Sir Rupert Lisle burst out laughing. He laughed till his shoulders shook under the bedclothes.
    “Is that all?” he said, when he had done laughing. “Is that all that such a clever man as Major Granville Varney could send you here to tell me? Tell him, with my compliments, that I’ve known it all along, and that I shall marry Olivia Marmaduke less than a month from to-night.”

It cannot, however, be said that Sir Rupert is finding much joy in an engagement to a girl who does not trouble to hide her own indifference to it, or her contempt for him personally:

    “Egad! I think if I were not Sir Rupert Lisle, and the rightful owner of the Lislewood estates, I should have a very poor chance with you, Miss Livy.”
    “I think you would, Sir Rupert. Pray let us never quarrel about that. Heaven forbid that I should deceive you! Yes, you are quite right; I marry you for your title, and I marry you for your estate, and if you had neither title nor estate, I wouldn’t marry you. I am candid enough—am I not? And now, if the honest truth displeases you, let us shake hands and say ‘good-bye’. I am quite willing to do so, I assure you.”

But of course, the more she shows herself willing to call it off, the more determined he is to possess her, whatever her behaviour towards him.

Meanwhile, Olivia’s situation (in spite of the grim reality of her bridegroom) driven the eldest Miss Marmaduke, Laura, with whom Olivia has always been at loggerheads, past her breaking-point. She sees and grasps an opportunity for revenge, however, waiting until Olivia and Sir Rupert are together at Colonel Marmaduke’s house to break an interesting piece of news:

    “Well, papa, poor Walter Remorden has been compelled to abandon his duties on account of his very delicate health, Mrs Milward says…”
    “What!” exclaimed the Colonel, “is Walter Remorden staying at the Rectory?”
    “Yes; he only arrived yesterday. He has been dreadfully ill, and is quite a wreck they say. But I must not bore Sir Rupert by talking of an invalid curate. Such congratulations, Olivia. Everybody is talking of the future Lady Lisle, and congratulating me upon my sister’s brilliant prospects.”

The effect of this upon Olivia is everything that Laura hoped, nor is Sir Rupert so stupid as to not understand the significance of her reaction. Yet the only immediate consequence is that Olivia begs Sir Rupert either to call their engagement off, or set an early date for their wedding. Naturally he chooses the latter. An unprecedented money gift from an aunt allows the preparation of a proper trousseau, but Olivia takes no interest in this; nor indeed in anything, spending her days in her room, silent and alone, refusing even to ride out on the splendid horse that Sir Rupert has bought her. As the wedding draws near, the baronet understandably continues to live in fear of a belated rupture.

And it is very near when Olivia walks over to the Rectory one evening, despite the falling rain. She hesitates long outside the door, and finally only being caught by one of the servants compels her to go inside. Mrs Milward welcomes her warmly, but she barely exchanges greetings with Mr Remorden, found lying on the couch in front of the fire, the signs of his long illness clear upon him; and once exchanged, he returns to the perusal of his newspaper.

Over tea, Mrs Milward finds plenty to say; it is not until she leaves the room that Olivia makes an awkward inquiry about Mr Remorden’s curacy, and learns that he has had the offer of a more advantageous place in Yorkshire, once his health is re-established:

    Olivia seemed scarcely to hear what he said, but sat pulling her dog’s ears and looking thoughtfully into the fire; presently she said, with strange suddenness,—“Walter Remorden, how utterly you must despise me!”
    He had been so entirely calm and self-possessed before, even when he could scarcely have failed to perceive her agitation, that a stranger would have set him down as incapable of any strong emotion, but as Olivia spoke his face changed, and he lifted one thin hand entreatingly, as he exclaimed,—
    “For pity’s sake, for the sake of all that is merciful and womanly, do not speak one word to recall the past. I have wrestled hard. I have prayed so many prayers that I might be able to bear my sufferings, and it is not for you to reopen old wounds, which are healed, which are healed,” he repeated passionately. “I live for nothing in this world but to do my duty as a minister of the Gospel. For that end I pray to be restored to health and strength; though, Heaven forgive me! the day has been when I have wished that I might never leave this house, except to be carried to one of yonder graves.”

The two are then interrupted by the arrival of Sir Rupert, sent after Olivia by Laura, furious and jealous over her unconventional call, and apparently determined to display himself at his very worst. Olivia finally agrees to leave with him as he demands, but obtains a few more private moments by sending him out to see about the carriage:

    “Olivia,” said Mr Remorden, in a voice which trembled with emotion, “there is no dishonour in my asking you if this marriage is irrevocably determined upon?”
    “It is.”
    “And it is no longer in your power to withdraw from your engagement to this man?”
    “It is no longer in my power.”
    “Heaven help you, then, unhappy girl!”

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[To be continued…]

12/11/2016

Lady Lisle (Part 1)

ladylisle2b
 
    “My dear Arthur,” said Major Varney, “do you think that if I ever left the course of my life to be directed by accident, I should be the man I am? No, I knew where I was coming and why I was coming; and now you may know it too. I come to claim my share in your winnings, according to the old bargain. I come to exact my rights established by precedent long ago. Whatever amount of your wife’s fortune may fall into your hands, I claim the half of that amount. Whatever of your step-son’s wealth and power can be wrested from him by you, the half of that wealth and power is mine. Whatever comfort, luxury, indolence, and extravagance you may enjoy, I claim my right to enjoy the same. And now get up, dear boy, and come back to the house. Walk on, Arthur Walsingham and Company, but remember your senior partner walks behind you, though he may choose to keep in the shadows.”
    Pale and shivering, Arthur Walsingham walked along the avenue, across the bridge, and through the gardens. Some doomed and wretched criminal, stumbling up the steps of the gallows, might have walked as he walked…

 

 

 

 
While she was spinning out the insanely complicated, year-long penny dreadful, The Black Band; or, The Mysteries Of Midnight, which ran between July 1861 and June 1862, Mary Elizabeth Braddon was simultaneously writing a second serial, Lady Lisle, which was intended for a more “respectable” audience—but which, for all that, offers plenty of shocking material.

Lady Lisle was serialised in The Welcome Guest between May and September 1861, before appearing in book form during 1862. It is, as these dates suggest, a shorter and less complicated work than its companion-piece, and differs from it in several other ways that offer an intriguing glimpse into Braddon’s own mindset. The thing that was most striking to me upon a first read is the dearth of sympathetic characters. Whereas The Black Band, which has large sections of its narrative set amongst people of the lower-middle class and the working-classes, offers no shortage of interesting, likeable characters, in this novel set amongst the gentry we struggle to find anyone to attach ourselves to…

…at least until the novel’s villain shows up.

Whether this aspect of the novel is to blame or not, Lady Lisle remains one of the more difficult of Braddon’s novels to obtain, at least in English: a modern edition was reissued a few ago, but only in French. (Sacré bleu! J’étais tellement énervé…) However, I was fortunate in eventually gaining access to a copy through one of our academic libraries; though, mind you, when I say “fortunate”— Mary Elizabeth Braddon was insanely popular in Australia, with book after book achieving best-seller status here, so it is less surprising than it might otherwise be that our older libraries do hold copies of her works. (Whether it was her focus upon crime, or her frequent assertion that “nice” people are often secretly terrible, that was the secret of her success, well, I wouldn’t like to say…)

Lady Lisle opens with a startling confrontation between the young widow of the title and Captain Arthur Walsingham, just returned from service in India. A wild, one-sided exhortation from the latter ends in a proposal, or rather a demand, of marriage, which is accepted.

The narrative then steps back some nine years to tell the story of the obsessive love of the dashing young Arthur Walsingham for the beautiful Miss Claribel Merton; of the intervention in his frantic courtship of her friends; and of her subsequent marriage to the wealthy Sir Reginald Lisle—with whom Walsingham was staying during his pursuit of Miss Merton, and had considered his best friend…

Braddon’s scorn for all three points of this romantic triangle is evident from the outset; so too is her personal exasperation with the persistent English taste for “doll-like” blue-eyed blondes, pretty on the outside but empty on the inside (with her irritation shortly to find its fullest expression in her breakthrough novel, Lady Audley’s Secret). Though Lady Lisle opens in company with its title character, it is soon evident that we are not to regard her as the novel’s heroine:

    “You must think me a fool, because I am going mad for a wax doll!” Arthur Walsingham cried out one night at Lislewood Park, when he had been drinking more than usual, and the baronet and his other companions had rallied him upon his silly passion. “I know, as well as you, what a foolish school-boy’s fever it is; but that makes it no better for me, if I die of it.”
    But if Miss Claribel Merton had, as her enemies declared, many attributes in common with a pretty, blue-eyed, flaxen-haired, waxen image fashioned by the toy-maker, she was not the less a beautiful woman and an heiress…

Too much of an heiress to be allowed to bestow herself upon an impecunious army officer; at the same time, beautiful and fashionable enough to catch the tepid interest of Sir Reginald, with the added appeal of cutting out his friend:

She was the rage; and, eight weeks after the Captain’s arrival, Sir Reginald Lisle—who rarely in the whole course of his brief and useless existence had desired to possess himself of anything, except for the pleasure of taking it away from somebody else—proposed for her hand, and, after a brief delay, was, at the instigation of her aunt, duly accepted.

There is, of course, an appalling scene between Walsingham and his erstwhile friend, but when Sir Reginald coolly refuses to be duelled with, the shattered officer shakes the dust of England from his boots and returns to his duties in India, dividing his time between reckless pleasure-seeking and trying to get himself killed in action.

As for the bride:

As usual, they could discover nothing from her face. It was at all times a face which revealed no secrets. Perfect in feature, most delicate in colouring, but inscrutable, enigmatic, almost expressionless. She married Sir Reginald Lisle without loving him, as passively as she had taken her music-lessons without having an ear for harmony, and her drawing-lessons without being blessed with an eye for form. Whatever other people bade her do, she did. She would have married the Captain at his command, being utterly incapable to resist the influence of a stronger mind than her own, had she not been restrained by the counter-influence of her aunt, which, from the force of long habit, was more powerful still. She was entirely at the mercy of those who controlled or counselled her. She saw with their eyes, thought with their thoughts, and spoke with their words…

The marriage works out about as well as you’d expect, although Lady Lisle is not long troubled with her disinterested husband. The Lisles are not a long-lived race, but have a history of dying young; though in spite of this, having acquired the habit of marrying young for obvious reasons, they have as yet managed to propagate the line and pass on the baronetcy. Such is again the case, with Lady Lisle a widow after eight years of marriage, and the title and estate inherited by her boy, Rupert. The child is an unfortunate combination of his father’s weakness of constitution, and his mother’s lack of personality (“…like her, unblest with brilliant talents or energy of character…”); yet from somewhere he has acquired a certain spirit which makes him quite a physically intrepid little boy: a quality which causes his mother endless distress as, far from nursing his health as she wishes, Rupert is given to overtaxing his fragile strength.

Mother and son are playing together on a hillside overlooking Lislewood Park when Lady Lisle is confronted by the ghost from her past—who has left India for England immediately upon seeing the death-notice for Sir Reginald. Before she knows it, Lady Lisle has been overpowered into another engagement; although to her credit, as she gazes once again upon Arthur Walsingham, she finds more genuine feeling in her heart than was ever there for her first husband.

Walsingham, meanwhile, has no illusions about the step he is taking:

“Listen to me, then. I hate you as much as I love you. My heart was rent asunder by these two passions, and I scarcely know which of these two has brought me from India, and to your feet to-night. It was a murder which you committed by your treachery of eight years ago; and it is the ghost of the Arthur Walsingham whom you killed that stands by your side at this moment. For your sake, and through your treachery, I have been a gamester, a drunkard, and a rogue. The memory of you, pursuing me in every hour of my life, has driven me to the brandy-bottle, the hazard-table, and the smiles of artless women, for relief from its cruel torture…”

Despite the unpropitious signs, the two are married; a quiet, private wedding, quite different from the bride’s first; and after a six-week honeymoon, the couple settle at Lislewood Park. There, awake to the bitter irony, Arthur Walsingham finds himself smothering in his bride’s wealth and his step-son’s grandeur: the house, indeed, has not changed at all since the night of the terrible scene between himself and Reginald Lisle.

To the world at large, however, Walsingham is a damned lucky man; so lucky, he is not without enemies. One of these is Gilbert Arnold, the husband of the Park’s lodge-keeper. Once a poacher, with a prison-sentence behind him, Arnold was supposedly reformed by the efforts of an evangelical chaplain, and at that time married the hard-working, God-fearing Rachel; but in fact all Arnold learned was a prevailing hypocrisy. Now, living upon his wife, his habitual discontent has escalated into a passionate hatred of anyone more comfortably situated than himself; and although he expresses this in terms of an unjust social inequality (and often uses the language of the evangelical tracts given to him by the still-deceived chaplain), at base it is a combination of selfishness, laziness and envy.

Arnold’s most bitter hatred has always been directed at the Lisles—because, not in spite of, all they have given to himself and his wife; why should they be able to give?—and in particular at the young Sir Rupert, who is almost the same age as the Arnolds’ child, James, and, as it happens, rather like him in general appearance, but with one boy having so much while much the other has so little. That his own son tends to cry and run in the face of any sort of danger or confrontation, while the small baronet displays a definite pugnacity, is another source of grievance for Arnold, feeling obscurely that some sort of cosmic injustice has been committed with respect to the two children, and hating Sir Rupert all the more as a consequence. Now, however, the focus of his anger redirects itself towards Arthur Walsingham, married to a fortune and an estate.

Be all this as it may, things are fairly serene at Lislewood Park six months after the wedding, when Walsingham opens the Brighton Gazette—and almost instantly proposes to his wife that they leave Lislewood for a time—go travelling—and do it immediately. Mrs Walsingham is bewildered but acquiescent, and only the need for packing and making arrangements with the servants prevents their departure that very night. While these preparations are underway, the Walsinghams walk out—and come home to find that two visitors have called, and are waiting to see them:

“Why, Arthur, nothing ever was so strange, I think; they are the very people whose names we saw this morning in the Brighton paper. Your Indian friends, Major and Mrs Granville Varney.”

The Major is a big, bluff, laughing man with auburn hair and moustaches; Mrs Varney is dark, quiet and very beautiful. Both are friendly, the Major almost effusively so. If Arthur Walsingham is not exactly delighted to see them, he at least does not repulse them; and before much time has passed, the Continental trip has been postponed, and the Varneys installed in the best guest-rooms. Over dinner, the Major exerts himself to captivate Mrs Walsingham, and succeeds very well.

Afterwards, as the others talk, Arthur Walsingham goes out for a walk, finding one of the loneliest and most secluded spots on the estate—but before he can take the action he intends, the pistol is snatched from his hand: he is not getting off that easily…

And then the two men talk over old times:

    “Some years ago, Arthur, you were in such a hobble, that, but for the assistance of a kind friend, it’s exceedingly unlikely that you would ever have got out of it.”
    “Granted,” said the Captain.
    “Dear boy, if you will only show an amiable and conciliating spirit, we shall get on as well as ever. Well, the friend did help you, and by his aid you were extricated from the hobble. As might be reasonably expected, a very lively attachment sprang up between you and the friend in question. People in Calcutta began to talk about Damon and Pythias. It was something more than friendship. It was a mysterious and masonic fellowship, which nothing but death could destroy. Was it not, Arthur?”
    “If you ask me whether we were useful to each other,—I shall say yes,” answered the Captain.

Graceful badinage and innuendo are the Major’s stock-in-trade, but here he is provoked into stripping off his gloves; and it is a chastened, indeed thoroughly frightened, Arthur Walsingham who eventually staggers back to his house. No more is heard about the Walsinghams’ departure for the Continent…

We are in a curious position at this early point of Lady Lisle: on one hand, Major Varney is clearly revealed as a thorough villain; on the other, we have been given no reason at all to sympathise with either of the Walsinghams, but on the contrary plenty of reason to think that both of them are getting what they deserve. It becomes, in fact, increasingly difficult for the reader not to start siding with the Major, if only because he is interesting in a way that his victims are not—in the same way, I suppose, that we hope that the criminals in a heist movie will succeed, for the pleasure associated with watching highly-skilled people working together to pull off a complex plan. The Major is a schemer and a plotter, a master-manipulator; a man of few if any scruples, for whom other people’s secrets and weaknesses are a ready source of income; yet he does what he does with such panache—hardly ever stooping to the blunt talking just felt necessary in the case of Arthur Walsingham—while maintaining all the while such an air of invincible good-humour, that it becomes harder and harder not to feel some sneaking sympathy with his proceedings, even when they take an honestly shocking turn.

Moreover, Braddon has enormous fun with the contrast between the Major’s bright appearance, all golden hair and blue eyes and genial expression, and the darkness of his deeds (at the same time, of course, making a serious point about the infuriating tendency of some writers to equate “beautiful” and “good”). Whenever we find the Major in the very depths of his plotting, there is sure to be a pull-away to his physical appearance at the time, and the effect if that appearance upon the people being, inevitably, taken in by him.

One of the Major’s many talents is planning for the future. He is a man who is capable of biding his time with great patience, and for a period of years, if the eventual reward is great enough…

The Varneys remain at Lislewood Park for a further five weeks, during which time the Major captivates Mrs Walsingham, quietly bleeds Arthur Walsingham, and looks around for more grist for his mill. His interest is caught by Arnolds—angry, glowering husband, unhappy wife, cringing little boy. As a guest of the Walsinghams, Major Varney has come in for his share of Arnold’s hatred; while the experienced eye of the Major, in turn, has noticed certain significant signs that point to a secret in Arnold’s past.

It is unfortunate to note that in Lady Lisle we find Braddon pandering to her readers’ prejudices, and in a way peculiar to the time of her writing: Major Varney’s valet and right-hand man is repeatedly described, not as Jewish, but as Jewish-looking—I suppose this approach was meant to imply an extra layer of deceit, since the only thing worse than a Jew was someone pretending he wasn’t one. This particular side-stereotype shows up again and again in novels of this period (half of the plot of Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister turns on precisely this is-he-or-isn’t-he? sort of characterisation, if you can call it characterisation), but it is disappointing to find the usually broadminded Braddon playing this nasty game. It is worth noting, however, that it is a tactic that seems associated only with her writing for “nice” people, not that meant for the working-classes. Make of that what you will.

But whatever else Mr Alfred Salamons may or not be, it seems that despite being in a position of servitude with respect to Major Varney, he is nothing more or less than the Major’s brother-in-law—the beautiful Mrs Varney escaping with a descriptor of “oriental” rather than “Jewish-looking”. How exactly this ménage works is left largely to our imaginations, but we do see that Salamons is not only entirely in his employer’s confidence, but a vital cog in his various activities. To him the Major confides his suspicions about Gilbert Arnold, sending him away to hunt into the lodge-keeper’s past. A scheme of vastly greater magnitude than anything he has attempted before, and with the potential for a yield so rich he can retire upon it, has suggested itself to the Major’s vivid imagination:

    The Major finished his toilette, and dismissed his servant. The door of the inner room opened, and Mrs Varney, dressed in white, with natural flowers in her dark hair, stood upon the threshold.
    “You look very lovely tonight, my soul’s idol,” said the Major, tenderly. “Those flowers have an air of innocence that becomes you admirably. Ada, otherwise Adeline Varney, how would you like to be mistress of Lislewood Park?”
    “Don’t talk nonsense, Granville!” said the lady; “but come downstairs. I thought you would never have finished dressing.”
    “Ada, this train must be a very long one that would undermine this house, and we should begin to lay the gunpowder a great way off, should we not? But don’t you disturb yourself, my darling. The grand system is at work. Alfred Salamons has received his instructions. Great things may be done yet, and all with a clear conscience—with a clear conscience, and no fear of prison dress from first to last.”

That nothing can ever be brought home to him that could result in a prison sentence is the Major’s great pride and boast, although we gather from this that his ideas and ours about what constitutes a “clear conscience” may not be quite the same.

On the day of the Varneys’ intended departure from Lislewood Park, the Major takes a moment to drop a sovereign into Gilbert Arnold’s hand, adjuring him to take very good care of his boy, before insisting upon Arthur Walsingham accompanying him on a last walk. The two are joined by the young Sir Rupert Lisle, who is mounted on his pony. The three take the winding path up the steep hills overlooking Lislewood Park where, with the boy safely out of hearing, the Major makes one last blunt demand for money. When Walsingham digs his heels in, the Major produces a packet of letters, threatening to send them to Mrs Walsingham if five thousand pounds aren’t forthcoming.

Somewhat to the Major’s surprise, Walsingham calls his bluff. He is momentarily disconcerted by this rebellion, but is not a man to let the grass grow. If one scheme fails, why then, he has another in mind…

    “No, you’re right. I don’t want to tell the secret. I don’t want to see poor Lady Lisle, or Mrs Walsingham, or whatever else she may choose to call herself, break her heart. I don’t want to see you kicked out of Lislewood Park, or sent to some unpleasant colony, where they might have the impertinence to ask you to pick oakum or break stones…
    “I am not one of those unlucky wretches to whom ready money is of vital importance… I would rather have fifty thousand pounds ten years hence than I would have five thousand today. Arthur Walsingham, what is the age of that boy yonder?” Major Varney pointed, as he spoke, to Sir Rupert Lisle…
    “He was seven last July.”
    “Seven years old. Very good. What would you say, Arthur, if I were to tear these silly letters and that other little document into a thousand pieces, and not ask you for another farthing for fourteen years?”

We are not privy to the details which Major Varney whispers into his companion’s ear, only to Walsingham’s appalled reaction—which extends so far as threatening to expose the Major, whatever the cost to himself, should he take one step towards putting his scheme into effect. The Major takes this easily enough, only shaking his head over Walsingham’s short-sightedness, and pointing out that he may have to use those letters after all…

Then, apparently putting all unpleasantness out of his mind, he requests an explanation for the name of ‘Beecher’s Ride’, given to a steep hill nearby. Walsingham tells him impatiently that it was named for a certain Captain Beecher, who won a wager by riding his horse down the face of the dangerous slope.

Walsingham then walks off, and the Major turns his attention to Sir Rupert, who has listened to this with great interest, and immediately declares that he could ride down the slope. The Major scoffs at this assertion—which gets exactly the response he expected, and perhaps the outcome, too…

    The Major, with every one of his white teeth displayed in an insolent laugh, and with his face towards the sun, was provokingly bright to look at.
    “No, no, my little Baronet,” he said, “you’re not brave enough to try that; for you’re too sensible not to know that it can’t be done.”
    The boy’s pale face flushed crimson with passion. “Can’t it?” he screamed at the top of his shrill treble voice. “Can’t it be done, Major?”
    He turned the pony’s head, galloped once round the summit of the hill, and then, lashing the animal violently with his whip, flew over the narrow ridge and down the hill-side… The pony reached the bottom of the hill, the boy swaying backwards and forwards in his saddle, but keeping his seat, but in the impetus of the last rush, the animal lost his balance, and fell, rolling over his rider. From where the two men stood, the pony and the boy looked like one confused mass, which rolled over and over for a few moments, and then grew suddenly still…

The two men rush to the scene via a less dangerous path. The pony is not seriously hurt, and scrambles to its feet; but when the Major kneels to inspect the child…

The Major is not slow to take advantage of Walsingham’s state of grief and shock—and guilt—arguing that he never intended such a thing to happen—he promised, did he not, that the boy would not be harmed?—but now that this has happened…

The numb Walsingham does not intervene as the Major springs into action, whipping the the pony to drive it deep into a nearby pool of muddy, stagnant water, from where it scrambles up into the woods beyond. He then wraps the child in his own plaid, telling Walsingham to go home and alert everyone that the boy is missing; to tell them that he galloped away from his companions and became lost; no more than that.

The Major carries his grim bundle to his carriage, waiting nearby with Mrs Varney and Alfred Salamons, and places it upon the seat inside. As he climbs in, he tells the others that Sir Rupert has been badly injured, and must be taken to Brighton immediately for more expert care than may be found near Lislewood:

    The Captain laid his hand upon the carriage-door. “What are you going to do with—with—the boy?”
    For the first time since the accident, Major Granville Varney smiled.
    “You know, or can guess,” he said. “Au revoir, dear boy.”

When the alarm is given at Lislewood Park, a wide-ranging search is put into effect; with the wet and muddy state of the pony, which wanders back to its own stable, suggesting the worst. Mrs Walsingham all but collapses in shock and grief, clinging desperately to the fact that her son’s body has not been found; and it never is…

No suspicion that the boy’s disappearance, and presumed death, is anything but a tragic accident crosses anyone’s mind. After all, with the boy dead the estate will pass to a distant cousin; while the profound grief and perpetual mourning of the boy’s mother, and the unyielding gloom of his step-father, speak for themselves. The entire district is affected by the tragedy—with one exception. Though Mrs Arnold mourns for the boy, and the sorrow of her patroness, Gilbert Arnold himself is in a state of high glee, delighted that adversity has finally struck the Lisles in a way that not all the wealth and property in the world can help.

But late one night, Arnold’s unwontedly cheerful mood receives a severe check when he has a visitor in the person of Major Granville Varney. Polite and urbane as always, the Major sends Mrs Arnold to bed, then settles in for a long talk with Arnold: one which encompasses the doings of a certain Josiah Bird, wanted for the murder of a gamekeeper in Kent, and includes the fact that Bird is a man identifiable by a gunshot wound in his right leg, such that he might be supposed to have a limp…

After this, the conversation takes an abrupt turn. Gilbert Arnold is advised—strongly advised—to pack up his family—including his boy; he must take great care of his boy—and go to London, where he will be met at the station by Mr Alfred Salamons, who may have some good news for him.

And so the Arnolds depart from Lislewood; although under the circumstances, this is not much noticed, nor is Arnold at all missed.

In London, the invaluable Mr Salamons directs the Arnolds to their new lodgings, taken in the name of “Green”, and further informs Arnold that if he behaves himself and does as he is told, particularly with respect to the care of his son, he will receive a weekly stipend until further notice. Arnold, typically, snarls at what he considers the smallness of the amount; but on the other hand there is the shadow of Josiah Bird…

Fourteen sad years then slide by at Lislewood. The cousin who has inherited the baronetcy is comfortably settled in Italy, and has no desire to return to England, instead leasing his estate to the Walsinghams in exchange for their management of his property. Mrs Walsingham’s grief for her son finally settles into resignation, a process assisted by the birth of her second child, also a boy: a healthy, happy, good-natured boy, who becomes the pet of the whole household, and the apple of his father’s eye.

But in spite of this, the loss of Sir Rupert Lisle is a blow from which Arthur Walsingham never recovers. His health deteriorates; far more seriously, indeed, than he allows his wife to know; but it is not until a short time before what would have been Sir Rupert’s coming-of-age that he speaks to her of any of the things on his mind.

At last, sure within himself that he has a very short time to live, he is moved to tell her a certain sad story—about a young army officer, who fell passionately in love with a beautiful girl who jilted him—and who responded to her perfidy by going sixteen ways to the devil. In particular, the young man completely lost his head over an actress, who was even more beautiful than his lost love, and unlike her in every other way, being dark, stately and mysterious. A brief but violent courtship conducted chiefly through wild letters ended in marriage. It was only after the ceremony that he ran into an acquaintance from India, who, recognising the new Mrs Walsingham from her earlier days in Calcutta, told the new bridegroom all about his wife…

On the instant, the young man abandoned the woman he had married, although not without giving her money, and returned to his old life in India. Some years later he saw his wife again, by then calling herself the wife of another man; well-contented, he did not interfere. Soon afterwards, a terrible temptation was placed in his path, one to which he succumbed—and so left himself the perpetual victim of a conscienceless villain. For the young man learned that the girl he had loved, the girl who had jilted him, had been widowed…

Claribel Lisle—not Walsingham—is appalled by the story unfolded to her, as well she might be; but her years of suffering have strengthened her, and she rises to the occasion with forgiveness and pity.

But for Walsingham, the stress of the moment brings about the crisis he has long expected. He collapses in a fit of apoplexy; only managing to utter, before he dies, a few incoherent words:

“Claribel—the boy, Rupert,” he gasped with a painful effort, “the boy is alive—Major Varney—ask—ask—“

.

[To be continued…]

02/01/2016

More than ordinarily pear-shaped

Well…2015 rather fell apart there, didn’t it? I’m sure that those of you who visit here – and other places – are tired of listening to me whinge, so I’ll just say that some significant personal issues developed over the second half of the year, which prevented me from giving much time to any of my hobbies. I am trying to make some changes at the moment, and I hope that we will all see an improvement in 2016.

As far as this blog in concerned, I am utterly mortified to realise that the putative main subject thread – that is, the development of the English novel – did not get a single update during 2015. There were a couple of reasons for this, none of them very satisfactory: the unappealing nature of the material was one (though that never stopped me before), while another was the fact that after signing off the year 1689 with a flourish some twelve months ago, I immediately came across another item from that year that I was unable to persuade myself could be legitimately ignored. I did read the item in question (short version: erk), but didn’t get around to posting. Hopefully with the help of a little loin-girding, it will be showing up here before too much longer.

A side-reason for not progressing in the Chronobibliography was the introduction of the Australian fiction section, which proved a major distraction. I also made some progress with my examination of early crime fiction, with posts on Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris and Catharine Crowe’s Men And Women; or, Manorial Rights. I also read Frances Trollope’s Hargrave, another important work in this respect…which had the effect of sending me off on yet another tangled tangent…

…because YET ANOTHER TOPIC AREA is exactly what I need right now.

When researching Hargrave, I discovered that several of Frances Trollope’s novels have crime themes, and should probably be included in this section of reviews. However—it was also asserted that a major influence upon Trollope, and in particular her tendency to mix disparate genres in her novels, was Edward Bulwer-Lytton, specifically his 1828 novel, Pelham; or, The Adventures Of A Gentleman.

This is where it gets complicated. Pelham in turn had been influenced by Benjamin Disraeli’s Vivian Grey, which was published the year before. Both of these novels drew heavily upon what is considered the first Bildungsroman, Johann Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship—and themselves influenced that odd, transitional English subgenre, the “Silver Fork Novel”…a topic I’ve been meaning to tackle, but put off because I felt I had quite enough to be going on with…

Which is of course beyond true. Trouble is, though, I’m now struggling to see this collision of elements as anything other than A SIGN.

Sigh.

So – as the panic begins to take hold – what is on the horizon? Four unwritten posts, to start with, consisting of my second attempt to draw a line under 1689, a “Reading Roulette” selection, another study of the 19th century religious novel, and of course Hargrave. This being the case, new material is the last thing I should be pursuing; but I’ve recently discovered that there may be an opportunity to get my hands on a copy of one of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s more obscure early works via academic loan. If that does work out, it will be a case of drop everything.

Because let’s face it, everything’s better with Braddon.

23/10/2015

The Black Band; or, The Mysteries Of Midnight

BlackBand1    In the lanes and alleys of the city, in the dismal rookeries where destitution and crime herd together in dismal companionship, the thief plies his dangerous trade, and the thief-catcher watches for his victim. In the gayer streets of the Western world of rank and fashion, the wretched daughters of sin, with silken garments and aching hearts, wait upon the miscalled pleasures of the wealthy and dissipated. Guilt and degradation are abroad beneath the midnight sky. Crime stalks beneath the quiet stars, and fears not to show its hideous face, hidden from the broader light of day…
    Oh wondrous mysteries of midnight! The felon doomed to die on the early morrow waits the coming of his executioner, with parched and burning lips which refuse to pray; with listening ears that count the strokes of the last hours left for his guilty soul; with dazzled eyes that see strange sights in the dim obscurity of his narrow cell; visions of horror and departed peace; of his victim’s death struggle, and of the happy home of his childhood. Oh, who shall tell of the tortures of the murderer’s last midnight? Far away in foreign lands, the soldier watches in his tent, on the eve of some decisive battle. He may never again hear the hour of twelve strike from distant turrets. There are prayers to be hastily murmured—prayers whose sincerity none can doubt, whose acceptance who shall fear? There are letters to be written to the grey-haired mother, tender words to the fair young wife waiting and hoping in the distant English home; while far away the clashing of arms, the galloping of horses’ hoofs, tell of preparations for the coming morn.
    No, midnight is not the hour of rest and silence we are so apt to deem it. The mighty wheel of Life and Time still rolls on. The ceaseless waves of the ocean still bent on the troubled shore; and that which is more restless than the ocean wave, or hurrying cloud, the heart of man, still fights the terrible battle—still suffers and still sins…

One of the remarkable things – one of the many remarkable things – about Mary Elizabeth Braddon is that while she was pursuing a successful public career as the author of “real” albeit rather shocking novels meant for middle- and upper-class readers, she was simultaneously toiling away at penny dreadfuls published in magazines aimed at the working-classes. Most of Braddon’s work in this area was conducted anonymously, and it is only recently that her activities have been brought to light.

Braddon’s first attempt at a penny dreadful was The Black Band; or, The Mysteries Of Midnight, which ran in The Halfpenny Journal between July 1861 – June 1862 at an average of two chapters per week. In 1877, the tale was reissued in book form by the publisher George Vickers, but it was heavily abridged; there was likewise a pirated American edition which was even more altered from the original. The Black Band was not reissued unabridged until 1998, when The Sensation Press released a limited edition.

It is easy enough to see the connection between The Black Band and Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris; in fact, imitations of Sue’s work were popular for many years, with authors all around the world offering to reveal “The Mysteries Of—” this, that or the other city to their wide-eyed readers. The difference is that Sue used his sprawling serial as a forum in which to raise and debate various social issues, whereas his copyists were, for the most part, content to shock and entertain. The latter is mostly true of Braddon’s work, although – typically, as we have already seen – she does also voice a number of social criticisms when her plot allows.

Another connection between The Black Band and Les Mystères de Paris is that its constantly multiplying storylines* make it impossible to review; all we can really do is offer an outline of its dizzyingly complicated tangle of subplots, and then highlight some of its more interesting features.

(*In the Sensation Press edition, The Black Band runs 612 pages; Braddon is still introducing new characters and subplots at page 505.)

Rather than “a plot”, as such, The Black Band has a central premise, one which allows Braddon to pile incident upon incident upon incident for one hundred and one breathless – not say exhausting – chapters, most of which end upon a cliff-hanger. Along the way, the reader is edified with murder, attempted murder, adult abduction, baby abduction, death-faking, imprisonment, attempted rape, forgery, bigamy, arson, robbery, a mock marriage, illegitimacy, insanity, suicide, a variety of betrayal and treachery, and some extremely bloody vengeance.

It can be fairly said, I think, that the readers of The Halfpenny Journal got rather more than their money’s worth.

So: at the centre of this story is Colonel Oscar Bertrand, an Austrian soldier of high social standing, but who is also the head of a secret criminal organisation called “The Black Band”, otherwise known as “The Companions Of Midnight”:

“I am the centre of a system so vast in its operations, that it extends over the greatest part of civilised Europe. I am the captain of a company so large that there are men in it upon whose faces I have never looked, and never expect to look. It is a company which, though continually at war with society, can yet – secure in its internal strength and the unfailing prudence of its operations – afford to defy society year after year. Recall to your recollection some of those gigantic robberies which have startled the wealthiest cities of Europe – robberies in which a skill has been displayed partaking almost of the supernatural – robberies which have defied the determination and the perseverance of the cleverest police in Europe, and which have remained undiscovered until this hour. Remember these, and you may form some idea of the resources of the mysterious company of which I speak.”

We eventually learn that Bertrand’s ultimate personal goal is to establish himself himself with the Austrian government by bringing about the destruction of those who have devoted themselves to freeing Venice from Austrian rule.

Braddon became aware of Italy’s struggle for independence when she was commissioned to write the epic poem Garibaldi in 1860, and she put her researches to effective if somewhat cynical use in The Black Band. Although she positions her Venetians amongst her “good” characters and shows herself sympathetic with their cause, ultimately their role is to step up at the end of the story, when it’s time for gruesome retribution to be dished out to her bad characters; thus leaving her good English characters with clean hands.

We note with amusement that most of those good characters have something in common: The Black Band is full to overflowing with poor and/or working-class people who are happy because they are virtuous; whereas all the rich people are miserable, and most of them criminal. While obviously this is Braddon catering to her target audience, it is not mere pandering: we must remember that Braddon herself knew what it was to be poor, and to struggle to earn a living wage. Her family was left in an extremely precarious situation after her irresponsible father finally did a bunk (not coincidentally, I’m sure, The Black Band is full of terrible fathers; the one or two good ones are adoptive, not biological), which led to Braddon going on the stage when she was only a teenager. When she speaks bitterly of starvation wages and the battle simply to survive from day to day, we can feel that she is drawing upon her own early experiences.

While he keeps a company of professional burglars at his disposal, most of what we see of Oscar Bertrand’s recruitment to his criminal society is done amongst the upper-classes—where there is no shortage of secrets to be exploited. Bertrand will help cover up a crime, if that is what is needed, or he will help in the commission of one. He particularly excels in helping people to come into possession of, or to keep, a fortune—for a price, of course.

Bertrand is one of these super-criminals who never seems to sleep. He spends his time flying from one end of England to the other, and from England to Italy and back again, seeking out dirty secrets he can use to bind new members of the Black Band to him, and others from which he can profit. Bertrand is a master manipulator, who uses the weakness and greed of others to his own ends. Recruits to the Black Band are tied to the society under threat of death, should they try to leave or betray the society in any way.

The Black Band opens with scenes of Oscar Bertrand’s recruitment of Lionel Mountford:

    The face of the young nobleman grew ghastly white at the Colonel’s last words. “And you ask me to join a band of robbers?” he said.
    “I ask you to do what better men have done before you,” said Colonel Bertrand, coldly. “Members of the company have been the inhabitants of palaces before today. From the highest to the lowest—the strength of the band lies in that. Wherever there is genius, courage, endurance, and patience; a hand that can strike, or withhold from striking; a tongue that can be silent, and a head that can think,—wherever there are these, there is a worthy member. High or low, let him enter the band. He will never leave it.”
    “Your words appal me,” said Lord Lionel, gloomily.
    “Will you join us – yes or no?” said the Colonel.
    “What do you promise me if I do join you?”
    “The wealth you desire, and the hand of Lady Edith Vandeleur before the next year is out.”

And on these terms Lionel recklessly throws in his lot with the Black Band. He is blindfolded and carried off to a strange rendezvous with an assembly of masked men:

    “You hear, brother,” said the Colonel, “you are accepted by the Companions of Midnight. Is it not so, brothers?”
    The masked company raised their hands simultaneously. Lord Lionel noticed that while many of the hands were coarse and large, others were small, white, and delicate, and adorned with costly rings.
    “Executioners of the Order, advance!” said the Colonel.
    Two men rose, and advanced from the opposite sides of the amphitheatre. They were both dressed in black from head to foot, and Lord Lionel perceived that they each wore a long slender knife, fastened to a belt which went round their waists.
Each of them silently took one of Lord Lionel’s hands, which he held while the Colonel uttered the following words,—
    “Executioners of the Order of the Companions of Midnight, the brother whose hand you now clasp will never be harmed by you, while faithful to the society which he this night swears to serve. If unfaithful to that society, he will become yours to strike when you can, and how you can. Mercy is unknown to you – you are the blind and pitiless instruments of the order to which you belong. If the new brother is too weak to take the oath of the Order, let him release your hands as I speak these words. If he holds your hands after these words, he is supposed to have taken the oath. If he refuses to join, let him drop the hands of the executioners.”
    A deadly shiver agitated the frame of the young nobleman, but his hands tightened upon the hands of the executioners, which he grasped with convulsive strength…

The woman for whom Lionel takes this drastic step is one of The Black Band‘s wickedest pleasures, with Braddon showing what she could do when her hands weren’t tied by tenets of middle-class morality. Lady Edith Vandeleur loves Lionel Mountford (albeit that her feelings are repeatedly qualified with remarks like, “As far as a woman of her nature could love—“), but she will not marry a penniless younger son. She wants fortune and splendour, and a title if she can get it. It is her cold-blooded spurning of Lionel that drives him into Oscar Bertrand’s clutches.

However, not knowing that the Colonel is keeping his word to Lionel by disposing of his elder brother, a wealthy Marquis, Edith lures into marriage Robert Merton, “the millionaire-merchant”. Driven frantic by her subsequent discovery that, had she bided her time just a little longer, she really could have had it all, Edith herself becomes Colonel Bertrand’s next recruit—and she, the daughter of an earl, raised in luxury and privilege, takes to a life of crime like a duck to water.

Braddon has a lot of evil fun with Lady Edith, having her move from one shocking piece of behaviour to the next, and dwelling in mock-horror upon her transgressions, each one worse than the last, even while she punctuates her narrative with tut-tut passages like this one:

    “Goodness, virtue, truth!” she cried, with a sneer; “will those win me admiration or respect? No! I must be able to outdo them all in pomp and splendour, and then, though they may hate me, they will bow to me, and lick the dust under my feet.”
    If anybody who beheld this lovely creature (crowned with snow-white flowers, emblems of the purity which was a stranger to her guilty soul), could have known the secrets of her wicked heart, how loathsome would her grandeur and beauty have appeared!
    How far before her the poorest cottage girl, walking barefoot over her native heath, whose heart could glow with a sincere affection, and whose soul could scorn a falsehood!

And of course, Braddon serves up several poor-but-virtuous young women to act as a direct foil for Edith, the most prominent of whom is Clara Melville who, interestingly enough, works as a dancer to help support her father and younger siblings. And Clara is not the only one of Braddon’s good characters who is “on the stage”: Clara is befriended by a prima ballerina called Lolota Vizzini, who is a foreigner as well as a professional performer, but who is warm-hearted, generous and thoroughly honest. We also have an actor called Antony Verner, who is a quiet, well-behaved, high-principled young man.

At one point, Clara is hired to perform in a Christmas pantomime. As she prepares to make her debut, we get a sudden interjection from Braddon:

Merry children with bright and joyous faces were assembled in the boxes; happy tradespeople, dressed in their best, filled the crowded benches in the pit; stalwart mechanics, in tier after tier, looked down from the immense and noisy gallery. All was noise, bustle, and enjoyment. It was altogether a pleasant sight to see; and the austere teachers, who cavil at the harmless amusements afforded by a well-conducted theatre, might have learned a lesson thgat night. Husbands were there, surrounded by their wives and children; brothers with their sisters. Surely this was better than the gin palaces…

Braddon’s personal exasperation with the automatic damning of the stage as “immoral” is very evident through these subplots. She goes out of her way to show how performing is just a job like any other and that, if young women on “the stage” do go wrong, it is not because of any inherent immorality, but because of greedy employers who pay wages their performers cannot live on—particularly if they are working to support dependents. And because she is talking to a working-class readership, Braddon can speak frankly about the sheer necessity that drives young girls to supplement their incomes by immoral means; and while she does not condone this choice, neither does she condemn the girls who make it, keeping her anger for the men who prey, one way or another, upon the vulnerable.

(In pursuit of her argument, Braddon introduces a theatre manager called Rupert de Lancey, who pays his young women as little as he can get away with, among other wrongs. There is so much venom in Braddon’s sketch, and she kills de Lancey off so horribly, that we can only conclude he was based on someone she knew in her theatre days.)

Daringly, Braddon makes Clara Melville, who we must call the heroine of The Black Band, a ballet-dancer attached to the Opera House: these young women had the worst reputation of all those in the various stage professions, with many a young man treating the environs of their theatre as their hunting-ground. Clara, however, wants only to do her work, earn her wage, and go home. Her beauty attracts attention, but she is scrupulous in avoiding the men who hang around the stage doors—until she encounters one who will not take no for an answer, in the form of the old roué, Sir Frederick Beaumorris. Enraged by the scorn with which Clara spurns him, Sir Frederick has her abducted and carried off to a property in France that he keeps for these situations. He doesn’t believe that Clara really means what she said to him, mind you; he assumes she’s merely trying to drive up her price; but if she did mean it, well, that’s just too bad…

Clara avoids A Fate Worse Than Death by the unexpected intervention of Oscar Bertrand, who forestalls that, at least, by revealing to Sir Frederick that she is actually his own niece, the daughter of the younger brother whom he defrauded and left destitute by means of a forged will. This knowledge does not make Sir Frederick any less eager to destroy Clara; he just alters his approach. He joins the Black Band in exchange for assistance in keeping his crime concealed; which, since it turns out that the original will was not destroyed after all (one of the conspirators getting cold feet), may require the permanent removal of Jasper Melville, aka Arthur Beaumorris, and of his daughter, Clara.

One of the most outrageous characters in The Black Band is Dr Montague Valery, a West End physician who maintains a successful practice despite the astonishingly high death-rate amongst his patients; or rather, because of the astonishingly high death-rate amongst his patients:

    It was strange that, clever as the physician was, he rarely went into a house whose threshold was not speedily crossed by the dark visitant, Death.
    The wife, whose husband Montague Valery attended, wore weeds soon after the coming of the physician. The heir, who summoned Valery to attend his father, rarely waited long for his heritage. Behind the doctor stalked the invisible form of Death; and, go where he would, the undertaker was apt to follow.
    He was at home when Sir Frederick Beaumorris called…

The will that should have enriched Arthur Beaumorris is eventually unearthed in the rackety old house which Antony Verner shares with his mother, and which in time also becomes the home of Clara and her younger siblings. The house previously belonged to Antony’s uncle, who was one of Sir Frederick’s co-conspirators, and who said just enough on his deathbed to let his nephew know there was a mystery. On Clara’s behalf, Antony hires a lawyer to instigate proceedings against Sir Frederick Beaumorris in the Court of Chancery, and that lawyer, Weldon Hawdley, comes accessorised by a shabby-looking, middle-aged clerk. It is, however, soon evident who the brains of the outfit is, and that whatever professional success Hawdley has had, it has been on the back of the efforts of Joshua Slythe, who progressively emerges as the unlikely hero of The Black Band.

As with Lady Edith, Braddon has a lot of fun with this improbable but entertaining character; though we sense she’s not kidding with her contention that real heroes do sometimes come in very unexpected forms:

Again Joshua heard the key turned in the door. He wondered what was meant by this proceeding on the part of the agent. A coward would have trembled. Alone, in a strange house, in a strange corner of town, and completely in the power of a wretch, whose character he knew to be infamous, Joshua Slythe was certainly in no pleasant situation; but the old clerk was not an ordinary man; fear to him was utterly unknown. Many a stalwart giant, upwards of six feet high, might have envied the brave spirit of the lawyer’s confidential clerk.

We have seen already, in our examination of The Trail Of The Serpent, that Braddon was an important figure in the development of English crime fiction, and she takes another step in that role here. Slythe is not really a detective, but he is an investigator; he is also the honest (and of course, working-class) counterpart of Oscar Bertrand, in that he has a profound understanding of human nature in its blackest forms, and an unerring instinct for a secret. His hard-earned knowledge has left Slythe with a cynical patina, but he is unshakeably on the side of the angels. Late in the book he forms a couple of interesting working partnerships, the first with a pugnacious farmer, John Atkinson, the second with Antony. Both men are initially bewildered by Slythe’s manoeuvring; both, however, quickly learn to follow his orders without question.

It is Slythe, then, who tracks down Arthur Beaumorris after he is abducted and imprisoned in a private lunatic asylum; it is Slythe who recognises Montague Valery’s evil designs upon Arthur and Clara, and takes steps to circumvent them; and it is Slythe who breaks up the burglary arm of the Black Band’s English branch (although amusingly, most of the criminals succeed in escaping the law; still, their activities are put a stop to).

Meanwhile—

We left Lady Edith furiously and disgustedly married to Robert Merton. To cut a very long story short, she tries to murder her husband, fails and is caught, is incarcerated (privately, under the guise of “madness”, to avoid shaming her family), escapes and flees, all at the prompting, and with the connivance, of Oscar Bertrand (well, except for the failure), who subsequently reunites Edith with Lionel and packs the pair of them off to Venice, where Lionel’s job is to infiltrate and betray an important anti-Austrian secret society.

While separated from Edith due to the events above summarised, Lionel made the acquaintance of Lolota Vizzini, who fell in love with him. At that time, Lionel was still fixated upon Edith, but he was clear-sighted enough to recognise the vast difference between the two women (that is, between the foreign ballerina and the earl’s daughter), and likewise the very different quality of Lolota’s love. However, even had Lionel then been able to cure himself of his love for Edith, it could not have been—because Lolota is a married woman.

At seventeen, Lolota married a man she did not love to escape her brutal father, only to discover that she had merely gone from frying-pan to fire. She eventually separated from Antonio Vecchi and struck out on her own, finding success and fame as a dancer; however, her achievements bring her no happiness because of her situation, with Vecchi turning up periodically to demand large sums of money as the price of staying away.

Vecchi is a member of the Black Band (no big surprise, there) and he is tasked with carrying the information gained by Lionel back to London. Vecchi is a serial betrayer, with a history of joining political societies, learning their secrets, and selling them to the highest bidder; he decides to circumvent Bertrand and carry his information directly to Austria, to reap all the benefits himself. It is, of course, a fatal mistake:

    Colonel Bertrand took a key from his pocket, and deliberately unlocked the grated door of the cell. He stood aside as he opened this door, and, with a howl of fury, an enormous tiger bounded from its den and leapt upon the Italian traitor. It seemed as if the animal had power to divine the purpose of its master.
    The dagger dropped from the hand of Antonio Vecchi. He fell to the ground beneath the weight of the powerful animal. The atmosphere was filled with blood. He was helpless—suffocated. The weight of the monster’s paws upon his breast stifled him, a jerk, and the spinal cord was dislocated, the traitor expired…

Yes, that’s right: Oscar Bertrand keeps a tiger around, just in case.

Although this dramatic execution is intended both to fulfil the conditions of the warning contained in the oath that all members take to the Society, and to act as a grim warning to those watching, it naturally has the side-effect of widowing Lolota Vizzini; so that when she and Lionel meet again, she is no longer a married woman…

In Venice, Lionel and Edith pose as brother and sister, she furthermore as the widow of a French nobleman. Lionel at this time is as miserable as he can be, worn down by guilt and self-hatred, and by something else:

    For years Lady Edith had been the lodestar of his existence—the bright and wandering meteor leading him through seas of guilt, indifferent whither he went in pursuit of her he loved.
    But, during those past years he had only seen her at intervals. He had beheld her the queen of a ball-room, the idol of a crowd—he had seen only her beauty and fascination, and for these he had alone worshipped her.
    Within the last few weeks he had learnt to know her!

Such is Lionel’s state of mind when he discovers that Lolota is appearing in Venice; Lolota, whom he has learned to appreciate and to love. In their moment of reunion, neither can conceal their emotion—Edith sees it clearly enough, and is overwhelmed with jealous rage. Even as Lionel and Lolota make secret – they think – plans to flee, from Edith and the Black Band alike, Edith begins making plans of revenge. The lovers intend to slip away to Naples in the first instance, travelling separately to avoid attracting attention. This gives Edith her chance: working with a conspirator from the Black Band, she succeeds in decoying Lolota into a fever-ridden corner of the city, gloating at the thought that even if Lionel manages to find her, he will only find a corpse…

That taken care of, Edith makes plans for her own future:

    Within a fortnight of Lord Willoughby’s departure from Venice, the marriage of the Marquis and Constance de Grancy (it was thus that Edith called herself) was solemnised with great pomp and splendour in the church of St Mark.
    Lady Edith had declared herself a Roman Catholic. What mattered the difference of creed to this fiend in human form—this worshipper of Satan, who could scarcely have believed in the existence of an all-seeing and avenging Deity.
    The vows were spoken which united Constance de Grancy and Lorenzo de Montebello in the holy bonds of matrimony. The would-be-murderess added the guilt of bigamy to her list of crimes.

Throughout her time in Venice, Edith has lived in dread of meeting someone who knows her as Lady Edith Vandeleur or, worse, as Lady Edith Merton. Should this happen, her plan is simply to deny her identity and brazen it out; but this doesn’t work when it is Oscar Bertrand who confronts her. The information gathered by Lionel had no long-term effect upon the conspirators, and the Black Band needs to try again. Edith’s husband knows when and where the next meeting of the anti-Austrian society is to be held: Bertrand gives her a week to get the information out of him; if she fails, she will be exposed.

Edith succeeds, but only just; in the extreme urgency of the matter, she and Bertrand are just a little careless: their conversation is overheard…

Braddon concludes The Black Band by dealing out happiness and retribution with a liberal hand—in a few cases, we are surprised at who is deemed worthy to warrant the former, or at least to avoid the latter. However, there’s never any question of what’s coming for Lady Edith and Oscar Bertrand, after their plot against the Venetians is discovered.

On one hand:

    The niche, or recess, measured about three feet and a half in breadth, and six feet in height… As Lady Edith looked at these things a stalwart figure emerged from the opening in the rock, and Black Carlo appeared before the masked leader.
    “We have done our work, Captain,” he said.
    “Ay,” answered the mask, “and you have done it quickly and well. The niche is neatly made, and we have brought the statue.”
    One of the masked guards laughed.
    “Come, Signora,” said the Captain, “can you guess now why we have brought you here?”
    “To murder me!” exclaimed Lady Edith.
    “No,” answered the mask, with horrible deliberation; “to bury you alive!

…while on the other, Oscar Bertrand is lured into drinking some “wine” prepared by a scientifically inclined member of the Venetian society:

The handsome face of the Austrian was now a ghastly and revolting spectacle. Every spark of intelligence had fled from his once brilliant eyes. His chin fell forward upon his breast, and his under lip hung powerless upon his chin, while a white foam oozed slowly from his open mouth. His head, which, four-and-twenty hours before, had been carried with the haughty grace of an emperor, now trembled like the head of some wretched being in the last stage of decay. His hands hung loosely from his wrists, as if every sinew had been withered and every nerve destroyed. He stared straight before him—his dull meaningless laughed the discordant gibbering laugh of an idiot…

This is our last glimpse of Colonel Oscar Bertrand in The Black Band:

The wretched creature burst into a loud peal of shrill laughter, and tottered away, gibbering and mouthing as he went…

Note, however, that Braddon does not explicitly kill him off. Even at this early stage of her writing career, she knew better than to do THAT to her master-criminal…

BlackBand2

14/07/2013

The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana

octoroon1b     “Why did you not tell Mrs Montressor the truth?” asked Gilbert.
     “What would have been the use, since I cannot tell it to Miss Leslie? That is what seals my lips. Her father has concealed from her her real origin. She thinks she is of the European race—I discovered that in my interview with her—and I dare not reveal a secret which is not mine to tell.”
     “And you fear that her return to New Orleans will cause sorrow to herself,” said Gilbert.
     “I do,” replied the young South American; “every door at which she dares to knock will be closed against her. Even my cousin, her friend, will turn from her in pity, perhaps, but with contempt. You, who dwell in a land where the lowest beggar, crawling in his loathsome rags, is as free as your mightiest nobleman, can never guess the terrors of Slavery. Genius, beauty, wealth, these cannot was out the stain; the fatal taint of African blood still remains; and though a man were the greatest and noblest upon earth, the curse clings to him to the last. He is still—a slave!”

When it comes to Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana, I find myself in the uneasy position of being inclined to disagree with the experts. In her introduction to the novel (which was reissued by the marvellous Sensation Press), Jennifer Carnell asserts confidently that, “Braddon began The Octoroon in November 1861…”—after, that is, the success of The Trail Of The Serpent. Yet in every respect, The Octoroon feels like an earlier effort than The Trail Of The Serpent, even allowing for the significant revision of that novel after its first release and failure as Three Times Dead. The jaunty confidence and outrageous streak of humour that characterise The Trail Of The Serpent are nowhere to be found in The Octoroon, which is a very po-faced melodrama indeed.

Possibly Braddon felt that outrageous humour, at least, would have been out of place in a novel about the horrors of slavery; but in any event there is a certain tentative quality to The Octoroon, an inclination to make big dramatic gestures instead of truly engaging with its subject matter, that seems like the mark of an inexperienced writer. I know there is a scholarly group out there that lists The Octoroon as Braddon’s first novel, tagging it as 1859 rather than 1861, and that feels about right to me. Perhaps she wrote a version of it first, but it wasn’t published until later? Or perhaps it was serialised to no effect in 1859, and then reissued in 1861? Or was it indeed a case of the notorious sophomore-effort syndrome? Whatever the truth, after the many and varied pleasures of The Trail Of The Serpent, The Octoroon was a bit of a let-down, if not without a certain charm of its own.

This is the third novel considered at this blog to deal significantly with slavery, after The Rebel’s Daughter and Retribution, and all three of them have resorted to exactly the same ploy: focusing upon a beautiful young woman of mixed blood, who is able to pass for white. (In fact, I’m beginning to wonder whether, other than the seminal Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there was any novel of the time addressing slavery that didn’t pull this stunt.) The main difference between Braddon’s novel and its fellows is that it is, of course, British. Blithely ignoring Britain’s own slave-trafficking past, and certain grim realities of its present, Braddon presents her homeland as the bastion of personal freedom, a sanctuary for the oppressed, and a realm free of race prejudice. In fact, she pours on the British virtue with such a heavy hand, takes it so very much for granted that the British are to an individual morally pure and upright, clean-living and right-thinking, that it would take a very brave person indeed to – per the little iconoclast of The Life Of Brian – put up their hand and say, “I’m not.” It is difficult to decide whether all this jingoism is just melodramatic exaggeration and extremism, Braddon stroking her audience’s ego, or a deliberate tactic to spike the guns of those inclined to criticise her thesis; most likely, a healthy mix of all three.

We do notice, however, that Braddon’s position on race relations isn’t quite as steadfast as her assertion of general British superiority. She seems to have taken on board the fact that someone could strongly oppose slavery and yet have no truck with the idea of race equality. Her way of avoiding turning off her potential audience by taking *a* stance on the subject is not to take one. Instead, she draws her line in the sand—slavery is bad, mmm’kay?—and then scatters through her text just about every possible attitude towards the subject of race relations; everything, that is, from:

The slave—the negro—the thick-lipped and woolly-haired African—the lowest type of a despised and abhorred race—

—to—

Enthusiastic and hopeful, the young student looked forward to a day when, from the ranks of these despised people, great men should arise to elevate the African race, and to declare aloud in the Senate, and before the assembled nations, the EQUAL RIGHTS OF THE GREAT BROTHERHOOD OF MAN.

—and all points in between, and then allows each reader to find their own level. It’s a tactic that makes Braddon’s own views exceedingly difficult to pin down; although I like to think that those capital letters are indicative.

In Gilbert Margrave, The Octoroon‘s hero, we have the very personification of British perfection; one described upon first introduction – and with a straight face – as “artist, engineer, philanthropist, poet”. He is “handsome and accomplished”, with “flashing black eyes” and a “superb forehead”, besides positively bristling with “manly energy”. He is also wealthy, courtesy of an invention adopted by the cotton industry, and he dreams of technology that will make slavery redundant. Gilbert is attending a London ball with his friend, Mortimer Percy; a somewhat unlikely friend, we might think, given that Mortimer is an American slave-owner, but be that as it may. Mortimer is engaged to his cousin, Adelaide Horton, who is currently visiting England under the guardianship of her aunt, Mrs Montressor. Also present at the ball is Adelaide’s dear friend, the beautiful Cora Leslie, with whom Gilbert falls desperately in love at first sight. There’s just one problem:

     “Can you tell me who she is?”
     “No. But I can do more. I can tell you what she is.”
     “What do you mean?”
     “I mean that your angel, your nymph, your goddess, your syren is—a slave.”
     “A slave?” exclaimed Gilbert.
     “Yes. The African blood runs in those purple veins. The hereditary curse of slavery hovers over that graceful and queen-like head.”
     “But her skin is fairer than the lily.”
     “What of that? Had you been a planter, Gilbert, you would have been able to discover, as I did, when just now I stood close to that lovely girl, the fatal signs of her birth. At the extreme corner of the eye, and at the root of the finger nails, the South American can always discover the trace of slavery, though but one drop of the blood of the despised race tainted the object upon whom he looked.”

One of the most cherished beliefs of the 19th century is that you could tell what a person was just by looking at them. Mock-sciences like phrenology fed easily into the need felt by the upper classes, at a time when the world was changing and long-standing privileges under threat, for reassurance that they were indeed not just different, but better. “Birth” showed itself in certain physical traits, and so for that matter did “good” and “evil”; sin invariably left a mark. Sensation fiction generally went out of its way to challenge and undermine this assumption, and Braddon herself, over the course of her career, was one of the leading exponents of the unnerving counter-theory that you never can tell. Here, however, plot purposes demand that Cora Leslie be betrayed by her fingernails and “the extreme corner of her eye” (!?), and so this pernicious nonsense is allowed to stand (though I’m struggling against a Morbo-like cry of, Blood does not work that way!!).

Of course, the other thing that tends to leap out of this passage at the modern reader is its outrageous sweeping assumption that anyone of African blood is automatically a slave, rather than just…someone with African blood. And again, it turns out that with respect to Cora, Mortimer is quite right. Her father is a slave-owner, her mother was a “quadroon” slave with whom he {*cough*} fell in love. To his uneasy surprise, Gerald Leslie felt a deep affection for the white-skinned daughter born of this connection, and finally decided to save her from her otherwise inevitable fate by sending her to be raised and educated in England, sternly warning her throughout their subsequent correspondence not to return to Louisiana, but never telling her why. After many years of vacillation, Leslie resolves to sell up his plantation and move to England to be with Cora, but before he can do so, events intervenes.

At the ball, Cora presses Mortimer for news of her father, and he reveals that Leslie was injured during a slave revolt provoked by the brutality of his overseer—allowing the characters to air their various views. Still more reluctantly, Mortimer adds that he believes Leslie to be in severe financial difficulties, and about to lose his property.

Cora, whose boring perfection quite matches Gilbert’s, turns out to be one of those exasperating 19th century daughters whose only response to parental neglect and mistreatment is to grovel still more abjectly, and immediately determines to ignore her father’s prohibition and return to New Orleans, to “comfort and sustain him”.

(On the other hand— Although she never reproaches him for his treatment of herself, I am pleased to be able to report that Cora angrily confronts and shames her father upon learning her mother’s history. It turns out that Leslie, unable to bear the silent misery and reproachful looks of his mistress after her daughter was taken from her, sold her to a man who desired her for the same position in his own household. Threatened with rape, Francilia committed suicide.)

Mortimer is appalled by Cora’s decision to return to Louisiana, knowing full well what will happen to her if she sets foot on Southern soil, but decides that the secret is not his to tell. Cora ends up travelling to New Orleans in company with Mortimer, Gilbert, Adelaide and Mrs Montressor, a situation that leads to a tangle of thwarted passions, violent outbursts and mixed motives.

Mortimer and his cousin Adelaide are indifferently engaged, fond of each other but marrying mostly to keep the family money and property together. However, Adelaide falls in love with Gilbert, who falls in love with Cora. This is hard enough for Adelaide to take when she and Cora are best friends, but when Cora’s real identity is revealed—and when it makes no difference at all to Gilbert’s feelings—his preference for Cora and his complete indifference to her become an insult that Adelaide cannot bear:

     “I insinuate nothing, Mr Margrave,” answered Adelaide. “I simply tell you that the—the person of whom you speak is no companion for me. Whatever friendship once existed between us is henceforth forever at an end—Cora Leslie is a slave!… African blood flows in her veins. She has never been emancipated; she is, therefore, as much a slave as the negroes upon her father’s plantation.”
     “I was led to believe something to this effect on the very night of your aunt’s ball in Grosvenor Square, Miss Horton. So far from this circumstance lessening my respect for Miss Leslie, I feel that it is rather exalted into a sentiment of reverence. She is no longer simply a beautiful woman; she henceforth becomes the lovely representative of an oppressed people.”

Meanwhile, Adelaide’s brother, Augustus, one of the novel’s two main villains and a real moustache-twirler if ever there was one, becomes sexually fixated upon Cora. When she spurns him in outrage and disgust, he becomes obsessed with the idea of possessing and degrading her. He gets his chance when Villain #2, Silas Craig, a career plotter with a chip on his shoulder whose financial machinations are extremely numerous and generally illegal, pulls the rug out from under Gerald Leslie. (It was Craig to whom Leslie sold Francilia, who killed herself rather than let him touch her.) Leslie’s financial ruin is the outcome of a deep-laid scheme by Craig, who hates the plantation owner with a passion, and which climaxes in Leslie’s forced eviction and the sale of all his property:

     For some moments there was a pause. Several amongst the crowd asked what the next lot was to be. The voice of the auctioneer responded from his rostrum, “The Octoroon girl, Cora!”
     Again there was a pause. There were few there who did not know the story of Gerald Leslie and his daughter, and every one present seemed to draw a long breath. The Octoroon emerged from a group of slaves, behind whom she had been hidden, and slowly ascended the platform.
     Never in her happiest day—never when surrounded by luxury, when surfeited by adulation and respect, had Cora Leslie looked more lovely than to-day. Her face was whiter than marble, her large dark eyes were shrouded beneath their drooping lids, fringed with long and silken lashes; her rich wealth of raven hair had been loosened by the rude hands of an overseer, and fell in heavy masses far below her waist; her slender yet rounded figure was set off by the soft folds of her simple cambric dress, which displayed her shoulders and arms in all their statuesque beauty…

A bidding war erupts between Gilbert and Augustus Horton, but Gilbert is hampered by the necessity for immediate payment: he goes to his limit of $30,000, only for the obsessed Augustus to buy Cora for the sum of $50,000.

The resolution of Cora’s plot is one of the weaknesses of The Octoroon (though it does include one neat and unexpected twist), which is perhaps not entirely Braddon’s fault. At the time this novel was written there were limits to what an author could get away with, particularly a female author (and unlike The Trail Of The Serpent, The Octoroon has a distinctly female “voice”). Braddon clearly found it necessary not only to dance around the specifics of Cora’s situation, but to have the girl simultaneously “aware” and “unaware” of the nature of her danger, presumably by way of properly preserving her purity, mental as well as physical. Consequently, those passages dealing with Augustus’s intentions towards Cora are exceedingly mealy-mouthed.

Thus we can have Cora asking herself, Could there be any doubt as to his motive in choosing this lonely villa for the retreat of the Octoroon?, and recognising that she is doomed to be no more than, A profligate’s hour of pleasure, to be trampled beneath his feet when the whim has passed; and yet as she sits and waits for Augustus to appear in her room, she can worry that, “Again I may hear those words which are poison to my soul; and this time he may force me to listen to his infamous proposals.”

“Force me to listen to his infamous proposals”— I suppose that’s one way of putting it.

Cora wards off her fate by climbing out of a window and making a break for it, but she runs straight into Augustus, who seems genuinely surprised at her objections to their arrangement:

     “So, Cora,” he said, “this is how you repay me for my foolish indulgence. This is how you show your gratitude for being received at Hortonville like a princess! Do you know how we treat runaway slaves in the South?… I’m afraid they neglected your education in England.”
     “They did,” replied the Octoroon; “the free citizens of that land of liberty forgot to teach me that beneath God’s bounteous Heaven, there live a race of men who traffic in the bodies and souls of their fellow-creatures!”

This confrontation ends with Cora unexpectedly rescued by Gilbert and her father, although not before she has defied Augustus and humiliated him by threatening to strike him across the face as he would strike a slave. Augustus has the law on his side now, so his main concern is preventing Gilbert and Cora from “escaping to the Free States of America”. And Augustus is indeed so mortified that his love for her (or whatever you want to call it) immediately turns to hate, and he entirely changes his plans for Cora:

“They have,” answered Augustus with an oath, “but they shall not long escape me. Listen to me, Adelaide; you may wonder at the passion I feel upon this subject, but my pride has been humiliated by the cool insolence of the Octoroon, and whatever motive I may had had for my conduct at the slave-sale yesterday, I have now no purpose but that of bringing Cora Leslie’s haughty spirit to the dust. I will have her found and brought back to New Orleans, and I will give her to you as your lady’s-maid. I know there is little love lost between you, and that I could not easily inflict a greater humiliation upon my fine lady.”

Of course not; because being a lady’s-maid is so much more humiliating than BEING RAPED EVERY NIGHT.

Dearie me.

In addition to internal struggles such as this (this one being merely the most pronounced), The Octoroon‘s main flaw is its structure—or rather, its lack thereof. There is an entire, major B-plot in this novel that I haven’t even touched upon here, for the simple reason that Plot A and Plot B barely touch. Rather, Plot B exists as a strange sort of independent outgrowth, with the only real point of intersection being Silas Craig, who also does plenty of machinating over in that section of the novel. Of course, The Octoroon was serialised, and it is easy enough to see that Plot B is as much about Braddon’s word count as anything else. Her difficulties in integrating her separate plot-threads in a meaningful way, which was so much better handled in The Trail Of The Serpent, is another reason why The Octoroon feels like the work of a less experienced writer.

The main characters of The Octoroon, Cora and Gilbert on one hand, and Augustus and Silas Craig on the other, are disappointingly lacking in shading; but amongst her supporting cast, Braddon does a better job of showing what she’s capable of when working in shades of grey. In many ways, the most interesting character in this novel is Mortimer Percy, introduced to us as a bored, blasé young man-of-the-world, a slave-owner who lets his business partner do all the dirty work while he lives comfortably on the profits, a man prepared to marry a woman on no more than tepid liking if it means inheriting a fortune and not rocking the boat. The impression we eventually get of Mortimer is that he has never stopped to think about the way things are—because he’s never had to. It is not until he is a spectator at close range of the relationship between Cora and Gilbert—until Adelaide, sick with jealousy, turns viciously upon the girl who was once her best friend—that Mortimer begins to ask himself some hard questions. It turns out he doesn’t much care for the answers:

     “I understand. As a worthy member of society, then, as a Christian and a gentleman—in the sense in which we regard these things—he may send his daughter to toil sixteen hours a day on his plantation; he may hand her to his overseer to be flogged, if she is too weak (or too lazy, as it will most likely be called) to work; he may sell her, if he will, no matter to what degradation—no matter to what infamy; but let him dare to love her—let him dare to look upon her with one thrill of fatherly affection—let him attempt to elevate her mind by education, to teach her that there is a free heaven above her, where slavery cannot be—let him do this, and he has committed a crime against society and the laws of Louisiana.”
     “Exactly so,” replied Silas Craig.

Note that parenthetical interjection: this is not so very many pages after Mortimer excuses the brutal behaviour of certain overseers by saying unconcernedly, “The planter finds himself between the horns of a terrible dilemma; he must either beat his slaves or suffer from their laziness…” As the battle-lines are drawn, the newly inspired Mortimer sides against his fellow plantation-owners and lends his support and assistance to Gilbert. He also breaks his engagement to Adelaide, in disgust with her behaviour towards Cora—though he recognises that she is driven by jealousy rather than prejudice, which he considers some excuse, if not enough. Adelaide, too, develops shading over the course of the story. She repents her treatment of Cora and seeks for a way to redeem herself, in Mortimer’s eyes as well as in her own. She eventually finds one, too, in one of the novel’s best touches.

And though I don’t want to get into Plot B in any detail, it is there we find The Octoroon‘s most typically Braddon-esque touch, as well as its other most interesting supporting character. Briefly, Pauline Corsi grows up thinking she is born of the French nobility, only for it to be revealed that her barren mother, in desperation, passed off a peasant’s baby as her own—prompting Pauline’s outraged “father” to turn her out on the streets. Unfortunately, this occurs not long after Pauline’s lover, a talented but poor young artist, is likewise thrown out of the house for daring to raise his eyes to her. Pauline follows her lover to America, but is unable to find him. After suffering poverty and deprivation, she secures a thankless position as a governess-companion and begins to brood over her wrongs, growing hard and bitter and swearing to herself she will win a secure position in life no matter what she has to do. At length she tries to “buy” the hero of Plot B, who has been framed for theft and imprisoned, offering him his freedom in exchange for marriage, though she knows he loves another woman—and that woman her own trusting friend. When he spurns her, she resorts to literally blackmailing her noble employer into a betrothal by threatening him with her knowledge of his guilty secret.

Then, the day before the wedding, Pauline’s long-lost lover turns up—

—and Pauline undergoes instant reformation. And the text, in effect, pats her on the head and says cheerfully, “Well, off you go, then!”

The other fascinating thing about Plot B is its hero who, it eventually turns out, is also an “Octoroon”. His mother was “a favourite Quadroon slave” of his noble father, who actually did marry her, but hushed it up. Upon making this discovery, the young man thanks Providence: “Humble though my mother may have been, her son has no cause to blush for her.”

So there.

The curious thing is, no-one over in Plot B seems to care about the boy’s mixed blood. Perhaps these things are less important in men than in women? Or perhaps Braddon just really needed to get her novel wrapped up…

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.