Posts tagged ‘mystery’

27/05/2017

Les Mystères de Londres


 
    “The man has arrived thus far. To-morrow, by his secret labours, his ideas will be promulgated, and he will find a powerful auxiliary in European politics. The man will then transform himself; in order to obtain access to crowned personages, he will become a mighty lord. He will amass into one mountainous heap the bitter and legitimate hatreds; all the crying wrongs committed by the insatiable cupidity, by the perfidious ambition, by the cowardly tyranny of his enemy. His voice, which will be heard, will preach the establishment of an immense crusade. Then this great lord will for a time throw off his golden honours, and his velvet robes, and become the Irishman, Fergus, in order to gain the hearts of his countrymen. He will revisit his poor Ireland; his treasures will be employed in relieving her indescribable distress, and his hand always open to bestow, will one day stretch toward the east, and will point to London in the distance, whence descends upon Erin, the torrent of her sufferings.
    “And then he will repeat the death-cry of his father: Arise—and war to England.”

 

 

 

 

 

While the timing of the publication of G. W. M. Reynolds’ own sprawling penny-dreadful, The Mysteries Of London, was no doubt primarily responsible for the failure of Paul Féval’s Les Mystères de Londres to appear in English translation in 1844, it is not difficult to imagine that whatever enthusiasm there might have been for this French-penned crime drama in the wake of the enormous popularity of Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris, it was quenched by the realisation that for all of its many and varied crime plots and French criminal characters, the real Bad Guy in Les Mystères de Londres was England. Sue’s stringent criticisms of his own country, his own society, were one thing; a Frenchman depicting England as a monster of tyranny, oppression and injustice, both at home and across the world—particularly in a work aimed (at least overtly) at the working-classes—was something else entirely. And to make things even worse, the main thread of the narrative concerns a plot against England that is explicitly Catholic in nature.

But even as English readers gobbled up the myriad exciting improbabilities of Reynolds’ The Mysteries Of London and its follow-up, The Mysteries Of The Court Of London, a version of Les Mystères de Londres did finally creep out into the marketplace. Published in 1847, translated by one “R. Stephenson”, about whom I have been able to find no information, and bearing no hint of the identity of the work’s original author, The Mysteries Of London; or, Revelations Of The British Metropolis is a poor shadow of Paul Féval’s original work, a one-volume, 500-page rendering of his four volumes.

It is hardly to be wondered at that The Mysteries Of London is a difficult, unsatisfactory read. Like its model, Les Mystères de Paris, this is a rambling, undisciplined, multi-plotted story full of people with secret identities (sometimes several at once): one difficult enough to follow even without huge chunks of the narrative being excised. As it stands, it is frequently impossible to tell whether something is mysterious because Féval meant it to be mysterious, or because Stephenson hacked out the explanation—although it progressively becomes evident that the latter is responsible for a majority of the reader’s frustrations.

Allow me to offer a minor example of the editing style that plagues this work throughout: one of the novel’s heroines, a girl called Susannah, is steeling herself to tell her brief life-history to the man she loves, revealing that she is the daughter of Ishmael Spencer, “the forger”, “the robber” and (worst of all?) “the Jew”. She has just got through explaining that she was never allowed out of the house, and had no companions other than a maid, Temperance, and a disfigured manservant, Rehoboam:

“It was one evening. Ishmael had not for two days been in that part of the house in which I lived. I was in the parlour, where I had just fallen asleep with my head upon Cora’s shoulder. I raised my eyes; whether I was still sleeping or awake, I know not, but I saw a lady cautiously entering the parlour with Temperance. How beautiful that lady seemed to me, and how much goodness was there in her features!… Corah lay trembling under me, for Corah was timid also, and was alarmed at the appearance of a stranger…”

Thus, at a moment when we are no doubt supposed to be speculating about the identity of the “beautiful lady”, all I could think was, “Who the hell is Cora(h)!?” – to whom we will continue to get confusing references for quite a number of pages, until (more by accident than design, we suspect) Stephenson leaves in his text the key to the mystery, after Ishmael finds out about Susannah’s visitor:

“‘Do not sleep any more in the parlour, my child; and, when you have dreams as this, always come and tell me at once. Will you do so, Susannah?’ My father’s questions were always an order or a threat. I bowed my head and trembled. ‘Will you do what I tell you?’ repeated Ishmael, shaking me by the arm. ‘I will, sir.’ ‘Yes, Susannah? You are a good girl; and, besides, if you did not, I would kill your doe.'”

Ohhhhhhhhhh, she has a pet deer! In the middle of London. Which sleeps in the house with her. Of course.

This is, as I say, a very minor example of Stephenson’s editing style. More serious (and even more frustrating) is the eventual realisation that he also censored Féval‘s text. What remain are mere allusions to shocking material that has been removed—enough to hint at what happened without us ever knowing the details. Two plot-threads in particular are affected by this. In one, we have an improbable love affair between Susannah, the daughter of Ishmael Spencer, and the aristocratic Brian de Lancaster, who is waging a personal and public war against his brother, the dissolute and criminal Earl of White Manor. It will, at great length, be revealed that (of course) Ishmael was not Susannah’s real father; that she is the daughter of Lord White Manor and his discarded wife (the mysterious, beautiful lady of Susannah’s vague childhood memories); and that Brian and Susannah are therefore uncle and niece. We are shown the aftermath of this devastating discovery—

Susannah has seen Brian de Lancaster but once since their fatal separation in Wimpole Street, and this was immediately after the decease of the Earl of White Manor, which took place during one of his terrible attacks at Denham Park. He came to inform her of the death of her father, and of his having succeeded to the peerage, and then set out again for London, without so much as sleeping one night under the same roof with Susannah.

—but not the moment of realisation.

Still more frustrating in its way is perhaps the most shocking of all this work’s shocking subplots, that involving the sisters, Clara and Anna Macfarlane, whose romantic affairs drive most of what we might call the “middle-layer” plots. One of the criminal gang, Bob Lantern, is offered money in return for the person of a beautiful young woman by two different people, and decides to cash in on both offers by abducting and selling the sisters. One of them, Anna as it turns out, is destined to be the unwilling plaything of the Earl of White Manor, although she is rescued before he gets around to having his way with her. Clara is not so fortunate, being sold to a certain Dr Moore to be the test subject in his experiments. Hints about this come and go, so that we are never sure of all she has been subjected to; but what remains is hair-raising enough:

For a time, the doctor ceased his experiments on Clara, who had become useless to him, and left her under the charge of Rowley, who divided his leisure moments between her and his Toxicological Amusements…

Rowley had been ordered to supply her with good food, that she might better be able to sustain the galvanic shock to which the doctor wished to expose her…

Clara Macfarlane was much changed. The traces of the long and cruel martyrdom she had been made to suffer, were clearly perceptible in her pallid and meagre face. Her form, so beautiful in its youthful proportions, had become debilitated and stooping… In the eyes of Clara, was some what of a wild expression. The horrible shock that had been given to her nervous system, had left behind it an affection [sic.?] which continually distorted her features by sudden and painful twitchings…

The final exasperation is that for some reason the text of The Mysteries Of London was rendered without any punctuation of the dialogue: I have inserted it in my quotes for ease of reading, but it isn’t present in the book itself. For example, the conversation quoted up above, between Ishmael and Susannah, is presented as follows:

Do not sleep any more in the parlour, my child; and, when you have dreams as this, always come and tell me at once. Will you do so, Susannah? My father’s questions were always an order or a threat. I bowed my head and trembled. Will you do what I tell you? repeated Ishmael, shaking me by the arm. I will, sir. Yes, Susannah? You are a good girl; and, besides, if you did not, I would kill your doe.

The cumulative result is a rather gruelling five hundred pages, in which we are never sure who anyone is, or who is speaking from moment to moment—or even if certain passages are meant to be dialogue at all. But if reading The Mysteries Of London was a chore rather than a pleasure, reviewing it is even more difficult: far more so than, say, dealing with the full six volumes of Les Mystères de Paris. In fact it can’t be done in any coherent way, except by, as it were, speaking backwards from the point when the fragmented pieces fall into place.

Briefly, then, The Mysteries Of London has two main parallel plots, one dealing with machinations at the very highest levels of English society, the other with the activities of a brutal criminal gang; with most of the “nice” characters, like the Macfarlane sisters, caught between and swept up into danger because of one or the other (or both). The link between all the story’s threads is the Marquis de Rio Santo, aka “Mr Edward”, real name: Fergus O’Brian—the money and the genius behind a plot to lead the Irish in violent revolt against the English government, with his own part being to use his access to the highest levels of society to assassinate the British monarch (who at the time of the story’s setting was the relatively inoffensive William IV).

It is late in the narrative before we are finally let in on the life-history of this work’s anti-hero, but his story, when it finally emerges, is one of an amusing and spectacular climb up the social ladder; one which might reasonably open, “Once upon a time— “. Some twenty years earlier, then, the lovely Mary Macfarlane fell in love with and became engaged to the poor Irishman Fergus O’Brian, rejecting the advances of Godfrey de Lancaster, afterwards the Earl of White Manor. A quarrel led to a duel in which de Lancaster was wounded; and Fergus, being a poor Irishman, was tried, convicted and transported to Australia. During his transportation, Fergus gained a friend and collaborator in the form of an angry Scot named Randal Graham; the two agree to (i) escape, (ii) turn pirate, and (iii) find some way to stick it to England:

    Fergus O’Brian had not become a pirate, merely to be a pirate. He had other views besides that of making booty more or less abundant; and every action of his during the four years in which he had traversed those seas, was a stone added to the gigantic edifice, of which he was the architect.
    It is not necessary to state, that his attacks were made on British ships, in preference to all others. They pillaged, sunk, or blew up, more ships belonging to the East India Company, than all the French privateers that ever swam…

Fergus also spends these years travelling the world, getting a good look at the brutality and exploitation that are the hallmarks of English colonisation and English trade, and gaining recruits to his cause:

Quitting the Indian seas, he only changed the scene, again to find, at intervals more distant from one another, the same hatred against England, still covered and restrained, but ready to burst forth. At the Cape of Good Hope, the Dutch boors—in America, both the Canadas, from one extremity to the other, groaning under the most horrible oppression, and venting their cries of distress, which were soon to find an echo in a French heart…

An amusing interlude follows, in which it is solemnly explained to us that Napoleon – who had, The most noble, the most enlightened, and the boldest mind, which has perhaps ever dazzled the world – escaped from St Helena with the single goal of crushing English tyranny…

…but since he didn’t quite manage it, it was up to Fergus O’Brian to pick up his slack.

During his travels, Fergus managed to be of service of John VI of Portugal, whose reward paved the way for Fergus’s great plan against England:

    In 1822, one year after the restoration of the house of Braganza, Fergus O’Brian, the poor orphan from St Giles’s, was created a grandee of Portugal, of the first order, Grand Cross of the Order of Christ, and Marquis de Rio Santo in Paraiba. Fergus was also, by royal prescription, authorised to bear the name and title of a noble family which had become extinct, the Alacaons, of Coimbra.
    So that when we heard announced in the proud drawing rooms of the Westend, the sounding titles of Don Jose Maria Telles de Alacaon, Marquis de Rio Santo, it was not the name of a vulgar adventurer, ennobled by the grace of fraud, and strutting about under a false title, but it was really a great nobleman, of legitimate manufacture, a marquis by royal grant, an exalted personage, upon whose breast glitterd the insignia of several of the most distinguished and most rarely bestowed European orders, which he had acquired and merited…

Perhaps the single most interesting thing about The Mysteries Of London is that its anti-hero is both a genuine aristocrat (albeit a created one) and a poor, dispossessed Irish revolutionary. His toggling between the various levels of society is, therefore, rather more convincing than usual: he is able both to command a dangerous and extensive criminal gang, and enter unhindered into the very highest circles of society. The latter, indeed, is why he takes upon himself the task of regicide: as the noble Marquis de Rio Santo, he has no trouble getting access to the king.

Paul Féval does not pull any punches with respect to English tyranny, dwelling angrily upon abuses in India, the opium trade in China, the brutalities of Botany Bay—but it is with respect to the treatment of Irish Catholics by English Protestants that he really lets himself go. And this is, of course, Fergus’s background, the first of many injustices suffered, with his respectable Irish family gradually stripped of their possessions and their savings by the cruel manoeuvring of English landlords, his sister seduced and abandoned, and his parents dying of grief and starvation:

    He again threw himself upon his knees and endeavoured to pray. But a mysterious voice resounded in his ears, and repeated to him his father’s dying words:
    “Arise! and war to England!”
    He sprang to his feet; his brows were knit, and a purple tinge chased the paleness from his fine features, and flashed fire.
    This was not—and no one could have been deceived by it—the transient anger of a child; it was the deadly hatred of a man. And in that poor room, in the poorest district of all London, arose a cloud, the precursor of a tempest, which might shake the three kingdoms to their foundations.
    Fergus advanced with firm steps towards the bed, and then slowly drew from his forehead to his chest, and then from one shoulder to the other, the sacred sign of the Catholic religion.
    “My father!” he exclaimed, with head erect and outstretched hand, “I here swear to obey you.”

And indeed, Fergus’s planned revenge is nothing less than the violent overthrow of the English government, for which purpose he spends years building a revolutionary army, predominantly but not exclusively Irish, which he has ferried to England as his plans move towards fruition. Féval allows Fergus’s schemes to progress so far as his army being in place around London, only waiting for their commander’s signal to strike—

—but of course that signal does not, cannot, come.

There is a strange split-vision about the conclusion of The Mysteries Of London. On one hand Féval is clearly enjoying his violently anti-English fantasy; but at the same time he has to find a way for the hitherto invincible Fergus to stumble at the last. His compromise is to have, not Fergus’s revolution fail, but his private crimes rise up against him. It is not the government or the army who stops Fergus, but two personally outraged and determined young men, and a traitor from within his own ranks—one who until almost the last moment was his most trusted lieutenant…

Between its aristocrats and its criminals, The Mysteries Of London is populated by a handful of respectable, middle-class (and mostly Scottish) characters, whose paths are crossed by Fergus in one or other of his various guises. Early on we find him pursuing the lovely Miss Mary Trevor, apparently because she reminds him of his lost love, Mary Macfarlane, even aside from the coincidence of their names. Mary is in love with poor but honest Frank Percival (poverty-stricken younger sons abound in this narrative, presumably as a criticism of the English system of primogeniture); but he is away, travelling on the Continent for reasons never explicated, when the Marquis de Rio Santo first enters Mary’s orbit. Between the “hypnotic” power of the Marquis’s personality and pressure from her family, Mary finds herself engaged to the Marquis almost without her volition. She still nurses Frank in her heart, however, until she is given reason to believe that he has been dallying with another woman even while making her impassioned declarations.

(The woman in question, the Marquis’s first romantic “victim”, is introduced to us rather marvellously as “Ophelia, Countess of Derby, the widow of a knight of the garter”, in the first but by no means the last demonstrations of Paul Féval’s complete failure to grasp the English system of title usage.)

Frank gets back to England to find himself supplanted by the Marquis, upon whom he forces a quarrel and a duel. A crack shot (of course), the Marquis shoots but refrains from killing Frank, who is left to suffer through a slow recovery under the care of his best friend and physician, Stephen Macnab.

And this is where things get complicated. (Yes, this.)

Stephen (whose surname is variously spelled Macnab, McNab and M’Nab throughout the text) is the son of a widowed mother—widowed when her husband was brutally killed many years before:

The death of his father, of which he had been the accidental witness, had at first shaken his youthful faculties; but he had soon recovered from the shock, and the lapse of years had now removed all the effects of the calamity upon his intellect. But the remembrance of his murdered father, and the image of his murderer, were engraved upon his mind in ineffaceable characters of blood. The assassin, whom he had seen for an instant, in consequence of the fall of his mask, was not stamped upon his memory with very certain indications: one circumstance, however, was still luminous—it was the form of a tall, robust, and supple man, with black eyebrows, knit together with a long scar drawn distinctly on his heated forehead. He saw all this as in a dream, but a burning fever for vengeance was kindled in his mind…

Staying with Stephen and his mother are Clara and Anna Macfarlane, the daughters of Mrs Macnab’s brother, Angus: a Scottish landowner and magistrate known generally as just as “the laird”. Mrs Macnab did – and, perhaps, does – have a second sibling, a sister called “Mary”…

When we are first introduced to Stephen, smug male that he is, he is hesitating between Clara and Anna, never doubting that he can have either for the asking; but although Anna is in fact in love with him, he only needs to realise that Clara is attracted to another man to become unalterably fixated upon her. This discovery occurs during a complicated scene in church, which finds a certain handsome stranger gazing fixedly at the young woman carrying around the collection plate, Clara Macfarlane palpitating over the handsome stranger, and Stephen toggling between homicidal fury and suicidal despair. (From the way the narrative unfolds we initially assume it is Mary Trevor who is carrying the plate, but it will very belatedly be confirmed as Anna Macfarlane: one of many missing subplots.) Later we learn that in his “Mr Edward” guise, Fergus has a house very near that in which the Macnabs live, and that Clara has become infatuated with him while watching him from the window. He, in turn, has distantly flirted with her, kissing his fingers at her and such, but without serious intention.

(People falling in love while spying on someone through their windows is a disturbingly recurrent theme in The Mysteries Of London, but since this very situation later leads to the rescue of Anna Macfarlane from the Earl of White Manor, we can’t entirely condemn it.)

So without knowing it, Frank Percival and Stephen Macnab have been supplanted by the same man. Stephen’s romantic sufferings recede while he is fighting to save his friend’s life, however, and he is distracted from them further by Frank’s feverish muttering when, it appears, he is the grip of a nightmare:

    “The scar!” cried Percival suddenly; “did I not see the scar upon his forehead?”
    Stephen had started up. “The scar!” exclaimed he; “oh! I remember!”
    “Upon his red forehead!” rejoined Frank. “It appeared white and clearly defined.”
    “From his left eyebrow to the upper part of his forehead?” said Stephen, involuntarily.
    “From his left eyebrow to the upper part of his forehead!” repeated Percival.
    “Frank!” cried Stephen; “you too know him then, In the name of Heaven, who is it you are speaking of?”
    Frank did not reply; sleep had again overpowered him…

Stephen never gets to follow up the mystery of the man with the scar, because Frank’s life is still hanging in the balance when Clara and Anna Macfarlane disappear, which not unnaturally distracts him from all other considerations.

One of the numerous (not to say infinite) minor characters of The Mysteries Of London is a certain Mr Bishop, whose main profession is indicated by the usual rider which accompanies his name, “the burker”. Hilariously enough, in Paul Féval’s twisted vision of London, not only does Bishop deal openly in dead bodies, he keeps a showroom of his merchandise. Having failed to get any help from the police in the matter of his cousins’ disappearance, the desperate Stephen calls upon Bishop and asks to see what he has in stock:

    All around this place—which occupied the space generally employed as kitchens and coal cellars in ordinary houses—were ranges of marble tables sloping forward.
    It was a frightful spectacle, to see dead bodies lying there, stripped of their sere-clothes, symmetrically arranged with a view to being made an article of traffic…

The girls aren’t there, but as we know, Bishop is very well aware of the fate of one of them:

    “Now then,” continued Bishop—Bob having shut the door—“what I have to tell you is—the devil take me if I tell you or any other man”—and he seemed embarrassed in speaking of it even to Bob—“I have never undertaken a business of this kind; but you, Bob, have neither heart nor soul, and provided you are well paid—”
    “Shall I be well paid, Mr Bishop?”
    “The matter in hand is, that—they want to carry off some young girl alive for the doctor to make some surgical experiments upon…”

Bishop is right about Bob, who almost at the same moment is approached by Paterson, the Earl of White Manor’s steward, who also has a proposition for him:

    “You know that little girl in Cornhill?”
    “Anna Macfarlane? I know, your honour; I was speaking about her only a minute ago to that gentleman who has just left.”
    “She is a divinity, by Heaven!” exclaimed Paterson… “I am sure his lordship would be enraptured with the girl at first sight—we must have her.”

Thus Bob finds himself in something of a dilemma:

“What the devil shall I do?” said Bob, “it is dreadfully awkward: one hundred pounds from Bishop! two hundred from the steward! a very pretty sum. But the sweet girl cannot serve as a subject for Dr Moore, and a plaything for the earl at the same time—that’s very certain—that’s not possible. And yet I promised Bishop; I promised that leech, Paterson…”

…until it occurs to him that Anna has a sister, who will do quite as well for Dr Moore.

The sisters are lured away from home with a false message to meet their father at a certain public house, run by a couple who used to be in the Laird’s service, which lulls their suspicions. Unfortunately for the girls, the Gruffs are in league with Bishop, and they are not the first to disappear through a panel in the floor, to be lowered into a boat on the river below; although they are – perhaps – luckier in that they are only drugged, not dead.

To the mortification of the Gruffs, who should show up in the middle of these dark dealings but the laird himself? – who catches a glimpse of his daughters being lowered through the floor. A desperate pursuit, an even more desperate battle with Bob Lantern, ends with the laird being severely beaten and tossed into the river, while the stupefied girls are carried off to their separate fates…

While this (what we might call ‘Plot B’) is unfolding, over in Plot C we are hearing the history of Susannah and Ishmael Spencer. The significance of this is not revealed until much later in the story, when we get a flashback to Fergus’s return to Britain after his glorious career as a pirate, when he begins the construction of his revolutionary army. He and his angry Scottish offsider, Graham, call upon an even angrier Scot: Angus Macfarlane, who Fergus finds concocting plots to murder the Earl of White Manor, in vengeance for his appalling treatment of his wife, the former Mary Macfarlane.

Fergus learns from Angus, among other things, that at the outset of the former’s piratical career, rumours abounded that he had returned to England, and that false sightings of him were frequently reported. Unfortunately for Mary, these happened to coincide with her pregnancy—leading White Manor (already regretting his marriage, and subject to fits of violent insanity at the best of times) to convince himself that her expected child was actually Fergus’s. When the girl was born he took her away from her mother and gave her up to the tender mercies of Ishmael Spencer; while as for Mary—oh, take THAT, Thomas Hardy!—

    “Two days afterward he dragged his wife to Smithfield. Godfrey made her go into one of the sheep pens, which happened to be empty, and cried out loudly three times: ‘This woman is to be sold—sold for three shillings.’
    “‘Let me pass,’ cried a man, ‘I wish to purchase, for three shillings, the Countess of White Manor.’
    “The man was dressed in the coarse costume of a cattle dealer. Upon seeing him, Godfrey’s courage forsook him, and he made a movement to escape. Mary has never mentioned, in her letters, the name of this man, but when I went to London, public rumour informed me of it. It was the young Brian de Lancaster, the brother of the earl…”

As Angus broods over his bloody plans for White Manor, Fergus manages to re-channel his anger into his own cause, and recruits Angus as one of his lieutenants…

…but it is, in the end, Angus Macfarlane who betrays Fergus—not that we ever really understand what is going on in the feverish last section of the story, where the editing makes bewildering nonsense out of the inevitable long and convoluted explanation, with which such fiction necessarily closes.

Angus is rescued from the river after his attempt to rescue his daughters, and ends up in Fergus’s care. He is raving, near total insanity, and makes a very nearly successful attempt to murder Fergus. We get confirmation during this section that it was Fergus who killed Stephen’s father, and that Angus knows it; and has only refrained from revenging himself upon Fergus for the death of his brother-in-law because (i) Fergus is sort of his brother-in-law too, sharing his grief over Mary; and (ii) his hatred of the Earl of White Manor is his prevailing passion—at least until his daughters are abducted.

It is this that pushes Angus over the edge, understandably, though both girls are eventually rescued. The problem is—as the narrative stands, we never know why Angus is so sure that Fergus was behind the girls’ abduction. It was, of course, in Clara’s case, one of his co-conspirators who was behind it; but Angus seems to have more direct guilt in mind (though, at the same time, he cannot possibly believe Fergus had anything to do with Anna falling into White Manor’s clutches). Perhaps a cosmic irony was intended, with Fergus being taken down by the one crime he didn’t commit? In any event, it is on this basis, and just before Fergus is to set his revolution in motion, that Angus turns on him…

It is, however, Frank Percival and Stephen Macnab who directly intervene, making a citizens’ arrest of sorts. Stephen has his father’s death to avenge, and on the testimony of Angus knows who his killer was; now he gets proof for himself:

At that moment Rio Santo, who had succeeded in withdrawing himself from the maddening grasp of the laird, raised his head—his brilliant eye flashed fire—a reddening tinge proceeding from the efforts of Angus, or from anger, suffused the features of the marquis, till then so pallid; his brows were knit, and on the purpled skin of the forehead a livid scar appeared, extending from the eyebrow to the hair…

So much for Stephen; as for Frank—

    “I have come to ask you, my lord,” replied Frank, hardly able to restrain his anger, “for an explanation of a cowardly and nameless crime.” He raised himself on the points of his toes, and whispered in the ear of the marquis, “I am the brother of Harriet Percival.”
    “And the disappointed lover of Mary Trevor!” sarcastically added the marquis. “I declare to you, sir, that I had not the honour of your sister’s acquaintance.”
    “That is true,” retorted Frank. “You killed her without knowing her.”

Him or anyone else! Of all the pieces of hack-handed editing in The Mysteries Of London, this one takes the cake. Some three hundred pages before this moment there is a single passing reference to “poor Harriet Percival”, and that is all we know about her. Fergus, meanwhile, is hardly more confused than we are: he tries to get an explanation out of Frank, but the situation takes an even more dramatic turn before he can give one, so this particular subplot is left hanging, a perpetual mystery.

Events then occur in a rush. Fergus is arrested, tried and convicted, not for his attempt to overthrow the government and assassinate the king, but for the murder of Mr Macnab (who had accidentally stumbled over an important secret, in the early days of Fergus’s plotting), and for being the mastermind behind a plot to rob the Bank of England—by tunnelling in from underneath! Good grief! – was this the earliest instance of that perpetually popular crime-plot??

Meanwhile, Clara, still in an extremely shaky condition of body and mind, finds out who it was she was infatuated with, the real identity of “Mr Edward”. In her unbalanced state, she makes her way to Newgate, and happens to be on the spot when Fergus is broken out by his still-loyal accomplices. She ends up being carried off by Fergus, who uses her presence to confuse the troops who are searching for a single man on a horse, and travels with him all the way to Scotland—to what should be her own home, Crewe Castle, Angus’s property (though bought for him by Fergus, to be used as a hideout if / when necessary).

And maybe I take it back about the Harriet Percival editing being the most confusing, because we are missing something important here, too—namely, the key to the working out of Fergus’s fate, wherein Clara becomes convinced that despite his engagement to Mary Trevor, her real rival for Fergus is Anna; and perhaps she’s right:

It was a singular journey. During the whole of it, he conducted himself toward Clara as a father would have done toward a beloved child. But, from the impression which had been produced upon him by the sight of Anna, when she presented to him the plate for his donation in Temple church, the marquis, in the strange and unconnected conversation which he had with Clara, several times inadvertently pronounced the name of her younger sister. Each time, that name fell as a heavy weight upon the heart of Clara…

From hints remaining in the text, we deduce that at some point Clara suffered a strange and tormenting dream, in which Anna came between her and Fergus, though we never know if this had any basis in reality. From Fergus’s reaction, almost certainly not:

    “She is not there today,” she said, with joyful anxiety. “Tell me, Edward, she is not come, is she?”
    Rio Santo saw at once that the poor girl was under the dominion of some strange hallucination; but he could not comprehend of whom she was speaking.

And poor Fergus is indeed fated to be taken down by the crimes he has not committed. Harriet Percival, nothing; it is the once-glimpsed Anna Macfarlane who dooms him:

    “My father!” exclaimed Clara. “Oh, yes, yes, Edward! the farm is just on the other side of the hill. O! how happy we shall be there!”
    She paused abruptly, but immediately afterward added: “That is to say, if my sister does not come, as she did the other time.”
    A flash of ungovernable fury darted from her eyes. She suddenly threw herself back upon the ground, and her hand, by chance, fell upon the cold barrel of one of the pistols. Her action was rapid as thought itself. An explosion broke the silence of that sequestered spot; Rio Santo fell to the ground—the ball from the pistol had struck him in the breast…

Some time later, Fergus is found by quite another woman—the lonely occupant of Crewe Castle:

    When the moon…rendered the spot visible by her silver light, a female form was seen kneeling by the unfortunate marquis. She was praying.
    This was Mary Macfarlane, the Countess of White Manor. She had just recognised, in the dead body stretched upon the grass, Fergus O’Brian, her first, her only love…

Having reached this melodramatic conclusion, The Mysteries Of Paris wraps itself up with a few hilariously abrupt paragraphs—which serve the secondary purpose of illustrating how much of the narrative I have been obliged to ignore in this review, even in this severely cut-down version of the text:

    Prince Demetrious Tolstoy was recalled to Russia in 1837.—He has in his old age become a hermit. The Viscount de Lantures Lucas was espoused to a Blue Stocking, and says—that he is now a most unhappy man. Bishop the Burker was hung for the murder of a child only six years old; Snail became a policeman; Rowley was sent to Botany Bay for experimenting upon an Irishman; Doctor Moore is now dead; Tyrrel the blind man is a banker, and chairman of a railway company, in Thames-street, and handles millions. The duchesse de Gevres, alias the Countess Cantaceuzini, has assumed the name of Randal, and has charge of Mr Tyrrel’s house; and Captain Paddy O’Chrane is now landlord of the King’s Arms.
    Gilbert Paterson, on the night of Rio Santo’s escape from Newgate, was knocked down by a person on horseback, and a waggon passing at the moment, crushed him beneath its wheels. Bob Lantern is confined to St Luke’s Hospital, his wife Temperance sharing his fate, gin and rum having deprived her of her reason…

 

 

 

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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.”

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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!”

.

[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…]

01/11/2016

Hargrave; or, The Adventures Of A Man Of Fashion (Part 3)

hargrave3b    The idea of obtaining a newspaper had often occurred to Adèle, as a means of looking back upon the world they had left, which she longed for, yet dared not venture to seek; but now, as they lay before her in tempting abundance and sufficient confusion, her quick eye caught sight of ‘Galignani’s Messenger’, and, well knowing the satisfactory universality of its multum in parvo columns, she eagerly stretched out her hand and seized it. The leading article, the party-coloured extracts from the English papers, the well-digested mass of all the news of Europe, was all passed by with more than indifference—with an impatience that, still and silent as she was, seemed to stop her breath as she turned to the paragraphs headed ‘PARIS’.
    Poor Adèle! what did she hope to see there? The name of Coventry? It was not likely. The history of her step-father’s acts, and her own and Sabina’s departure in his company? She felt, as this last thought suggested itself, that she doubted if she could see it, and not betray her agony to all who looked on her. Yet still she read on, of this, and of that, and Heaven knows what, with such eagerness of attention, that it may be doubted if a cannon let off beside her could have disturbed it.
    At length she came to the following paragraph:
    “The interest excited by the approaching trial of the old Englishman, Roger Humphries, is greater than any merely private trial has produced for years. It is now generally known, beyond any possibility of doubt, that this desperate ruffian, who still preserves the same obstinate silence, was not only the robber, and, as many thought, the assassin of Madame Bertrand, but also the perpetrator of the daring and atrocious robbery committed some weeks ago on a gentleman returning to his lodgings from the salons of Riccardo. No proof has yet appeared against him respecting the two former attacks of the same nature made against persons leaving the same establishment, an accurate account of which appeared in this paper; but it is very strongly suspected that the three robberies, so similar in object, time, and place, must have been planned and executed by the same bold hand. But whether these former crimes be brought home to the prisoner or not, the sentence expected to be passed upon him is condemnation to hard labour in the galleys for life.”

In Part 1 of this examination of Hargrave, I expressed surprise at Frances Trollope choosing a French heroine for her novel, but here, I think, we have the explanation.

For many people, “19th century literature” and “Victorian literature” are interchangeable terms, but it is important to remember that there was a good half-century of publishing in existence before Victorianism really kicked in, and that the novels of the Regency and post-Regency periods were often daringly different from what came later—particularly those written by women. We’ve seen clear evidence of this already, in the novels of Catharine Crowe—Susan Hopley, with its servant-heroine, and Men And Women, with its detective-story plot; both of them steeped in crime—and here we find Frances Trollope doing much the same thing. Both authors were extremely popular with the reading public.

However, Victorianism did finally take over—and a great many earlier female writers were, in effect, expunged from the record, partly by not having their books reprinted, partly by a refusal on the part of the all-powerful circulating libraries to stock existing copies. Trollope, for one, was increasingly condemned as “coarse” and “vulgar” for her forthright style.

(It has always completely infuriated me that Tobias Smollett, whose books are full of sex, violence and scatological humour, continued to be reissued throughout the Victorian era, while his contemporary, Charlotte Smith, was buried on account of her feminist-radical themes.)

But while Frances Trollope dealt frankly with subject matter considered unfit of Victorian readers, there was a line she wouldn’t cross, and with the crisis-point in Hargrave, we’ve found it. As she strives to save her step-father, in order to protect her most beloved sister, Adèle de Cordillac—this beautiful young woman—this lady of breeding, modest and well-conducted–this Protestant—reveals herself as a first-class liar and plotter. It is necessary for the novel that she be so; but we can understand why Trollope held back from having an English girl (or even a half-English girl) behave like this.

Crushed by his confrontation with his step-daughter, Hargrave is only too willing to follow her orders, and leave his fate in her hands: capable of carrying on a masquerade while unsuspected, he wilts before the contemptuous condemnation that he sees in Adèle’s face, and meekly acquiesces in her developing scheme to save him.

Considering their situation,  Adèle realises that she must think of something that will provide both a reasonable explanation for their flight, and an effective smokescreen of the truth—a truth she must keep from Sabina, even while convincing her that their escape is necessary. She finds an excuse in the ongoing tumult of the French government, casting Hargrave in the role of a conspirator whose actions against the incumbent rulers have been discovered.

Dismissing the servants, Adèle breaks the news to Sabina and Madame de Hautrivage, simultaneously coaching Hargrave in the attitude he is to assume. As she anticipates, Sabina’s only thought is for her father’s safety; she declares herself capable of anything, even playing a part in public, if it is necessary. Adèle reveals that they will leave that very night for Calais, and take passage to England, where they will stay until, hopefully, the present crisis passes and Hargrave may safely return to France. She then presses upon Madame de Hautrivage the need for absolute secrecy about their movements—which she does knowing full well that Madame cannot keep a secret.

Not until she is alone with her step-father and sister does Adèle explain her real plan. Hargrave and Sabina must attend the Ambassador’s party with Madame as planned, and behave as if nothing was wrong; from there they will make their escape, via arrangements made by Adèle during the evening. However, they must not forget that they have a spy in their midst in the person of Louis Querin, their footman (as Adèle knows from her observation of the police), and fooling him is the first necessity: already he has inquired about their intended movements that evening, as she is aware thanks to some innocent remarks from her maid, Susanne. Hargrave will order his servants to have their carriage ready to take the party home at four o’clock, but he and Sabina will exit two hours earlier. If Querin is not watching, they must slip out to a hired vehicle that Adèle will have waiting; if he is, Hargrave must get rid of him first by telling him that Sabina has been taken ill and ordering him to run to summon their carriage. If all goes well, before anyone realises the deception they will be gone from Paris—and definitely not by the Calais road.

The one point over which Adèle hesitates is the necessary abandonment of Roger Humphries, of whose whereabouts she is still unaware—Hargrave having kept that to himself. Yet she knows they cannot lose time in searching or waiting for him…

Adèle stays home that evening under a pretense of illness, to carry out her own part in the plan. Having made up a bundle of her own and Sabina’s jewellery and money, and various necessary items, she begs the assistance of Susanne, telling her maid that she has agreed to assist a friend to escape a forced marriage: a story that wins Susanne’s interest and cooperation. The girl happily agrees to provide two complete outfits from her own wardrobe; it is also she who guides the disguised Adèle out of the house via the servants’ passageways and exit, and leads her to a coach-stand. The two travel only a short distance before, to her distress, Susanne learns that she is to take no further part in Adèle’s adventure. Adèle lets her out and sends her home, with Susanne promising absolute silence, before slipping away into the night.

(It is amusing to note how much more faith in her maid’s fidelity Adèle has than in her aunt’s…)

Adèle then travels on in the hired coach to the agreed rendezvous-point near the Ambassador’s residence, where she has an agonising wait ahead of her. To expedite matters (and give herself something to do), in addition to dangling from the window the white handkerchief that is the agreed signal, Adèle decides to get the door of the carriage opened, so there will be no delay when Hargrave and Sabina reach the spot:

    …she let down the glass behind the sleeping coachman, and tugged at the cape of his ragged coat till he was sufficiently roused to understand that he was to get down and open the carriage-door for her.
    Just as he had done this, and while Adèle was leaning forward from the carriage to make him comprehend that she wished it to remain open, with the steps down, two gentlemen, gaily laughing, lounged, arm in arm, out of the coffee-house, and stopping within the light of the lamp, to examine his watch, one of them exclaimed, – “Trop tard? Mais non! – pas du tout.” And so saying, he drew his friend away in the direction of the Ambassador’s hotel. It was Count Romanhoff who had thus spoke. Adèle knew his voice in an instant, and drew back, with a sudden movement, into the corner of the carriage. But it was too late, the Count had already caught sight of her face, and stood like one transfixed. But before Adèle could be conscious of this, he moved on, feeling that, as a gentleman, he was bound not to interfere with the incognito of a young lady…

Not long after this unnerving encounter, Hargrave and Sabina appear. As soon as they are seated, Adèle orders the coachman—who cannot decide exactly what sort of enterprise he is involved in; he’s just sure that he will be well-paid for his discretion—to carry them to a hotel near to the departure-point for public conveyances leaving Paris.

On the way, she learns from the others that everything went according to plan:

Hargrave and Sabina had walked through the crowd of servants assembled in the hall exactly as Adèle had directed, and had seen nothing of Louis Querin on their way. That clever personage was, indeed, at that very moment particularly engaged in receiving orders from M. Collet, as to the manner in which he was to dispose of Mr Hargrave and the ladies upon their leaving the ball, it being decided that that the suspected delinquent should be taken into custody before he re-entered his own house…

The fugitives find their discreet hotel, and there plan their next step. It is Sabina who suggests the mysterious castle outside Baden-Baden as their refuge, repeating what the young man told her about it: that it has been long-abandoned by its owners in favour of more conveniently situated family holdings; that for much of the time, it cannot be seen from the road; and that it has a reputation for being haunted, which makes the local people avoid it. Also, it’s a castle: Hargrave will like that.

By this time Adèle is so physically and emotionally exhausted that she is unable to come up with any firm idea of a destination, and she lets Sabina have her way; thinking that at least they will be out of France, and in an unexpected direction. The next morning, the girls disguised in Susanne’s clothes, the three board the common stage, and set out for Germany. Their first proper resting-place is a small inn near Gernsbach, some distance – although still walking-distance – from the castle. Somewhat to her surprise, Adèle finds Sabina’s scheme feasible: portions of the castle are in good condition, and there is plenty of furniture in reasonable condition. At the inn, the landlady’s daughter becomes attached to them; she and her soon-to-be husband accept an offer of employment, one of their main tasks to be the frequent required trips to the nearby town to buy food and other necessities, which will allow the fugitives to stay hidden.

At this point the narrative of Hargrave divides, spending much time back in Paris where we see unfoldin events largely from the perspective of Count Romanhoff. Although he succeeded in hurrying Alfred Coventry out of Paris on the previous night, Romanhoff also put his energies into dissuading his friend from his wild plans for endless and aimless travel, in favour of simply going home to England. This is a country that he, Romanhoff, has never visited, and he assures Coventry that he would be delighted to accompany him there, once he has tied up a few personal loose ends.

One of these is attendance at the Ambassador’s party. Romanhoff arrives there full of scorn for Adèle—

well contented to believe, that the fair coquette, who had given so severe a heartache to his admired friend, was engaged in some abominable imprudence (probably an elopement)—

—but the talk he hears there of Hargrave, following his mysterious departure, and about whom rumours of political intrigue have already begun to circulate, gives him pause. Then, to cap matters off, the Count overhears some very different talk when passing by a group of servants in the vestibule:

…his ear caught a gibing phrase about the cunning trick of “les grands messieurs“, in pretending to believe that the vaurien, who had so cleverly slipped through the hands of justice, had only been plotting a little against King Philippe; when the fact was, that he had been discovered to be the greatest thief in Paris, and, as some said, a cruel murderer into the bargain.

Romanhoff is understandably startled; but, although he does not believe this story about Hargrave, neither is he satisfied with the story of him fleeing the consequences of his political plotting—because in that case, why would it be necessary for the girls to leave Paris with him, and under conditions of such secrecy? Romanhoff says nothing to anyone, but goes in search of more information; and knows where to get it:

    Nothing could better prove the sagacity of Mademoiselle de Cordillac than the use made by her aunt of the communication she had deemed it prudent to make to her respecting the departure of Mr Hargrave.
    As long as that gentleman and his daughter remained in the salons of the embassy, the good lady held her peace, though beyond all question it was pain and grief to her; but no sooner had she watched him lead his daughter off, and received from Sabina a soft parting glance, which the gentle-hearted girl could not withhold from her mother’s sister, than she began – as she sorted the hand of cards just dealt to her – to sigh very pathetically, and to murmur odds and ends of the secret of which she believed herself to be the repository…

Naturally, Hargrave’s “secret” is soon all over Paris, and the delighted Madame is besieged by curious visitors who long to hear whatever she has to tell. When Romanhoff calls the next day, he can’t get near her; but it hardly matters: there is only one topic of conversation, and Madame insists upon England via Calais so definitely, and so serenely, that it occurs to no-one that she doesn’t know what she is talking about.

Romanhoff is departing when he is accosted by another visitor who has listened intently without approaching Madame. With a feeling of shock, the Count recognises the man that he and Adèle saw Hargrave talking to in the private passageway at the fête, who when pressed introduces himself as Julio Ruperto. To Romanhoff’s eyes the man is a self-evident villain; yet so eager is he for information, he swallows his feelings of distaste  and invites Ruperto into his carriage.

Their brief conversation confirms Romanhoff in his judgement of the man, but he bites his tongue and allows his voluble companion to say what he will. Ruperto presents himself, in effect, as a professional “doer of favours”; a man who will go to any lengths to help a friend, as long as he is convinced that he has been treated in an honourable manner (and as long as he is well-paid, Romanhoff concludes cynically). Alas, he must admit that his friend of long-standing, Mr Hargrave, for whom he has done many favours over the years, seems now to have treated him in a distinctly dishonourable manner…

Though every word he speaks makes Romanhoff despise him more, the Count is startled and relieved when Ruperto asserts, of his own knowledge, that Mme Bertrand is alive. According to him – and explaining the words overhead by the Count and Adèle – Hargrave engaged his services to help him carry the lady off: an enterprise which he admitted had not the lady’s consent, but which he did not imagine would make her particularly angry. Ruperto had lent his assistance in the securing of Mme Bertrand, when Hargrave led her out into the garden in search of a brief of air after all their dancing. After that—a carriage was waiting, and lodgings. But he was not concerned with that part of the enterprise: his job was to enter the house and listen to the talk, and to give evidence as to having seen the lady present after that time, should any inquiry arise. For these services, he was supposed to receive payment; instead, he found no money and his employer evidently fled. This being the case, he became one of many to call upon Madame de Hautrivage in search of information. And pressing his card upon Romanhoff, with an offer of services should he need anything done, Ruperto takes himself off.

At this time Romanhoff is very dissatisfied with himself. He has listened to gossip, called upon a woman he despises in search of more, and allowed himself to be talked to and toad-eaten by a scoundrel. (He also has an uncomfortable suspicion that he may have done Adèle an injustice, although he’s not prepared to back down on that point just yet.) Moreover, Ruperto has gone so far towards convincing him that of all the stories circulating, his own involving Mme Bertrand is most likely the truth; and that Hargrave’s “disappearance” may be explained simply by his slipping away to join the object of his desire; perhaps telling Madame a story to cover up his disreputable doings. But then, where are the girls?

All this ends in Romanhoff not only staying in Paris himself, to try and get to the bottom of the mystery, but writing to Alfred Coventry to postpone his journey and return too.

Meanwhile, as in polite society the political story gains ever-greater credence, the police are tearing their hair out over the escape of their prime suspect in what they still believe to be the murder of Mme Bertrand. Moreover, M. Collet is now convinced that Hargrave was responsible for the robberies outside Riccardo’s—with the help of Roger Humphries, of course. The Englishman who lost his sovereigns to M. Roland had marked them for his own purposes, thus proving that the coins in Roger’s possession indeed originated with him.

Eager to make up for having allowed Hargrave to slip by him, Louis Querin has stationed himself in the vestibule of the house, hoping to overhear something from on of Madame’s callers that will put him back on the scent. There he makes contact with Julio Ruperto (before Ruperto attaches himself to Romanhoff), and determines to cultivate him; learning enough to carry his findings to M. Collet, who has Ruperto brought in for questioning.

But Ruperto’s evidence, while exonerating Hargrave with respect to the murder of Mme Bertrand, only confuses matters more with respect to her jewellery: why the need for the removal and extraction of her diamonds? But perhaps there is some other explanation. As M. Collet’s suspicions of Hargrave recede, those held against Roger recur with extra force, particularly since he remains so doggedly silent when questioned about his movements. To the elderly man’s anger and mortification, the police send Louis Querin to bring them his locked-box; and a final misunderstanding seals Roger’s fate. Not realising that Roger means that the large bag of money within—in which more of the marked sovereigns are found—represents his life-savings, after some forty years in the service of Hargrave and his father, Collet see only the obvious lie that he “received it from his master”:

    Many other circumstances, also, seemed to suggest arguments in favour of Mr Hargrave’s innocence. His immense wealth, believed, or, as enough people were ready to swear, known, by all the world; his character as a man of gallantry and pleasure; his intimate connexion with all the most distinguished personages in Paris; all this, in M. Collet’s estimation, rendered his having anything to do with either crime as improbable, as the facts connected with his servant made the old man’s participation if not sole commission of them, the reverse.
    When the mind of a judicial inquirer is fully made up on any subject, it is not easy to shake it: so it was with M. Collet. It would have required much clearer evidence than he was at all likely to get, to have convinced him that Mr Hargrave was a rogue, and Roger Humphries an honest man.

But despite his increasing tunnel-vision about the gambling-house robberies, M. Collet is scrupulous about following up Ruperto’s evidence concerning the disappearance of Mme Bertrand, sending his men out to track down the postillions of the carriage supposedly hired by Hargrave, and the lodgings to which Mme Bertrand was removed. They succeed, in time, and the nature of the “lodging-house” gives M. Collet a very different idea of how events played out:

In fact, he perceived at once by an official glance of his experienced eye, that though the mansion (at the distance of about half a league from Paris) was exceedingly well montée, handsome, and even elegant in its furniture and fitting up, and having about it (almost) every appearance of being the dwelling de gens comme il faut,—the inmates were very unmistakably infamous…

(It’s touches like that which made Trollope increasingly persona non grata as the 19th century rolled on…)

M. Collet doesn’t particularly believe the assertion that the, ahem, owner-operators of the house were told that the young lady in their custody was placed there by her parents to prevent her eloping, but at this point he is less interested in that than in confirming the identity of their inmate, and hearing her story. A miserable and frightened Mme Bertrand it is, though she has not been mistreated beyond her confinement; and she denies that Hargrave had anything to do with her abduction. He did, indeed, lead her through the opening in the garden room so they might get a little air, but at the last moment he let go her hand and stepped back inside; though she heard no-one speak, it seemed that Hargrave was responding to someone calling him, from his manner she thought Prince Frederic. It was after she was left alone that her ordeal began—seized, her cries smothered in a cloak, and held in this manner for some time, before being dragged away. Then her own cloak was pulled open and her diamonds wrenched off her, before she was carried to a carriage and driven away… Only one glimpse of her abductors was she given, enough to see they were masked.

Mme Bertrand is then reunited with her rapturously happy husband, while her story pushes to one one side speculation about the flight of Mr Hargrave. Moreover, her testimony is taken as exonerating Hargrave, while the disappearance of Julio Ruperto (who, whatever he did know at the time, now knows he was an accessory to robbery and abduction) throws significant doubt on his assertion that Hargrave was the individual who arranged for Mme Bertrand to be carried away. All this brings Roger back into the spotlight. Mme Bertrand declares that he is the same height and build as one of her abductors, and the hammer found at the scene was his; while a variety of other suspicious details (some of them invented by Louis Querin) leads to his committal for trial…

Meanwhile, near Baden-Baden, things are going…oddly.

Hargrave, it must be said, is a novel with a divided tone. While its supporting characters are, for the most part, treated seriously, whenever Hargrave himself becomes its focus, a faint but unmistakable note of burlesque enters the narrative. This is evident even at his first introduction, with Trollope waxing philosophical about vanity and its consequences; and subsequently, she handles the split vision which necessarily attends Hargrave’s hypocrisy and role-playing with irony: never mocking those deceived by him, a list which extends all the way from Roger Humphries, who has known Hargrave all his life, up to Prince Frederic, who sternly rejects the idea that Hargrave could have been involved in a crime, but finding wry humour in the ever-increasing gulf between Hargrave’s public persona and his private activities.

By now we know that Hargrave wasn’t guilty of murder, at least, and that the blood found at the scene was his own, from a cut sustained while separating Mme Bertrand’s diamonds from their settings (which is more than poor Adèle knows, as she fights to save him). Nevertheless, he is guilty of some serious crimes; and I suspect the fact that Trollope never seems to take his activities as seriously as she might have done has a lot to do with this novel falling out of favour. That the law never catches up with him isn’t a problem—it was well into the 20th century before characters in novels, at least, stop being treated as justified for covering up a crime to avoid scandal—but it is difficult to know what to make of the peculiar manner in which Trollope finally disposes of her anti-hero; not to mention that she finally grants him his heart’s desire, albeit too late to benefit him personally.

However, the situation of Adèle de Cordillac is treated with all the gravity it demands. There is also considerable psychological acuteness in the way that Trollope depicts the way in which her relationship with Hargrave deteriorates after she has rescued him from the consequences of his actions. In fact, the more Adèle does for him—the more she sacrifices herself for him—the more Hargrave resents her. Furthermore, having internalised the fact that nothing he can do will provoke her into hurting Sabina by revealing the truth, Hargrave feels free not only to voice his dissatisfaction with their withdrawal from “society”, but to make himself even more of a hero in Sabina’s eyes by hinting at his own courage and daring in involving himself in a dangerous political plot. As for Sabina herself—who reacts with dismay even when Adèle once unthinkingly calls Hargrave “Your father” instead of “Our father”—she knows only that something has created a barrier between herself and her sister:

Adèle wondered that a man so loaded with disgrace and sin could wear such an air of peace, and apparently self-satisfied composure; while Sabina marvelled that the gay, light, social spirit of her beloved father could endure with such admirable serenity a change so very violent and so very sad. To her eyes his character rose into something little short of sublime as she contemplated this admirable resignation; but to the unhappy Adèle the effect of it was most painfully the reverse. Had she wanted any additional argument to strengthen her in her new faith, she would have found it in contemplating the ease with which her Roman Catholic step-father seemed to shield himself from every feeling of remorse by drawing closer and closer the intercourse between himself and his confessor.

One hero-worshipping daughter and another who knows the entire truth about him don’t make a satisfactory audience for Hargrave, who instead latches onto the local Catholic priest—not actually to confess anything, of course, but to make him the recipient of an increasingly elaborate fantasy wherein his political plotting was at the instigation of those highest in the Catholic church, including one particular person situated in the Vatican.

Frances Trollope had by this time written an outright anti-Catholic novel, The Abbess (balancing it with an anti-evangelical novel, The Vicar Of Wrexhill), but in Hargrave she treats Catholicism more pityingly than angrily; with a shake of the head rather than a slap. At the most basic level, she contends that Catholicism demands unthinking submission from its adherents (along with making the usual English Protestant assertion that it appeals to the emotions rather than the mind), and she illustrates her point via the long-suffering Father Mark, who undergoes a terrifying crisis when he one day begins to ponder the workings of the Catholic church and almost loses his faith—but regains it by sternly resolving never to do any of that dangerous thinking again.

Father Mark is still feeling penitent when Hargrave adopts him as his confessor—and, recognising in the naive, well-meaning, gentle-spirited priest the very audience he has been craving, begins to perform for him, first with tantalising allusions, later by frankly presenting himself as the Pope’s man in France. The priest is at first awed by this, but the longer it goes on, the more of his time that Hargrave takes up, the more intense and frequent the demands made upon him for interest and sympathy, the more Father Mark can’t help wondering if God has sent Hargrave to punish him for his near-dereliction…

    “Do not leave me! I have displayed the whole map of my once worldly soul before you, and hang upon every breath uttered by one anointed and received by the blessed Church as her priest and servant, in the humble hope of becoming myself one day like unto him, and set apart sacred and sworn to her service.”
    This of course could not be spoken without a good deal of crossing, in which the weary but observant priest thought himself obliged to join… Father Mark had still to disengage himself from his fervent penitent, and that too without giving his priest-ridden conscience any cause to reproach him with indifference to the interests of the Church; and this was no easy task for him, poor man! Not only had Mr Hargrave given him to understand, as hinted above, that his purpose was to dedicate himself to the service of the Church, and to offer that service at Rome, but had informed him also that, notwithstanding the enormous sacrifices he had made of his hereditary wealth to the cause of the pious monarch whose interest he espoused, he still possessed, in diamonds and other precious stones, a sufficient treasure to make him feel that, by dedicating it and himself to the one and only Church, he might make an acceptable offering.
    To the mimosa-like sensitiveness of Father Mark’s feelings on all subjects connected with the authority under which he had determined to live, this was enough to make Mr Hargrave an object of great and conscientious importance, though (for some reason or other, which the good father sought not to inquire into) he could not manage to make him one of respect.

While Hargrave is amusing himself with his new game, the two girls, with increasing security in their retreat, begin to wander further afield. Finally, desperate for something new to read, they venture all the way into Baden-Baden, although not without the precaution of first donning Susanne’s clothes. It is while they are in a book-shop that Adèle’s hungry eyes fall upon a newspaper—and she learns that Roger Humphries has been in custody since the night of the fête, and is due to stand trial for the crimes committed by her step-father. The same article makes it clear that Roger’s refusal to explain his absence from the Hargrave mansion is the main basis of the suspicion against him.

Not for a moment does Adèle contemplate leaving the faithful old man to his fate. She hopes that she can still keep Hargrave’s secret, but at all cost Roger must be saved. She makes up her mind to leave for Paris at once, and requests a private interview with her step-father. Hargrave has avoided being alone with her since their arrival at the castle, and he tries to avoid it now, but without success. He doesn’t like it, though—and he likes it even less once Adèle starts to explain her intentions. On her part, the quick flash of glee in Hargrave’s eyes when he hears of Roger’s situation is enough to steel her against both his pleading and his anger; although even now she is not prepared for his monstrous selfishness:

“If you present yourself before a court of justice for the purpose of proving Roger Humphries innocent, my doom is sealed! I am lost, destroyed for ever, and Sabina with me; and when you have seen your sister perish at your feet, then turn to old Roger Humphries for consolation. But do the thing thoroughly, Mademoiselle de Cordillac. Say at once that it is your step-father—the husband of your mother, who has committed this deed…”

To support her assertion than she can give Roger an alibi, and free him without placing Hargrave in danger, Adèle is finally driven to confess about her note to Alfred Coventry—not without extreme mortification. Hargrave sees this and immediately goes to work:

    “Do I hear rightly? he said. “Do I hear Adèle de Cordillac, the descendant of so long a line of noble ancestors, calmly declare that it is her intention to proclaim in Paris, before a public tribunal, that in the dead of night she bribed one of her step-father’s serving-men to carry love-notes to a young Englishman at his hotel? This is madness,—absolute madness! And it becomes my bounden duty to prevent it.” Then, rushing to the door, he turned with violence the clumsy key that for years had remained stationary in the lock, and put it in his pocket.
    “You stir not from this room, young lady, till I have your solemn promise upon oath, not to quit this dwelling without my permission, and not to hold any communication, direct or indirect, with any persons out of it, without my concurrence and consent. As the husband of your high-born mother, Mademoiselle, and the representative of your equally noble father, it is my duty to prevent this disgraceful degradation. And I will do it!”
    Whatever composure of manner Adèle had lost in naming Mr Coventry, she more than recovered now… “You must permit me to think, Mr Hargrave, that the honour of my ancestors is as safe in my keeping as it is in yours.”

Hargrave’s threat is absurd, of course, and Adèle gets her way, stopping only to explain her intentions to Sabina, who is dismayed both at the thought of her journey to Paris and her appearance at the tribunal, but at one with her about the painful necessity of the task before her. Donning her usual disguise, Adèle walks to Baden-Baden alone, and takes the stage back to Paris. There she finds refuge with her aunt—dodging her embarrassing questions about life in England—and acquires the assistance of M. de Servac, a very old friend of the family, and a skilled advocat. To him she confides her own part in Roger’s predicament, insisting in the face of the lawyer’s doubts that is only to protect her that the old man has remained silent. M. de Servac accepts this, but suggests that supporting witnesses in the form of whatever servants were present at the hotel when Roger made his inquiries might be advisable. His investigations locate a man called Orliff, who did indeed see Roger at the hotel—just after assisting the hurried departure of his master, Count Romanhoff, with his friend, Alfred Coventry; both of whom are currently in Paris…

M. de Servac gets permission to visit Roger, and without influencing his answers by explaining to him how their meeting might affect his fate, manages to give him a few minutes alone with Coventry, who Roger has never actually seen before (although not for want of trying):

    “Is it true, Roger Humphries,—is it true that Mademoiselle de Cordillac intrusted you with a letter for me on the night of Mr Hargrave’s ball, between the 23rd and 24th of April?” said Coventry, seizing on the old man’s hand, and grasping it strongly.
    “Is it true, sir, that you are Mr Alfred Coventry?” returned Roger, answering one very cogent question by another.
    Coventry thrust his hands into his pockets, and pulled forth two or three letters bearing his address. “Will not these satisfy you?” said he.
    “These and your looks together, sir, do satisfy me,” replied the old man; “and come what will, I humbly thank God for granting me an opportunity of doing my errand before I die.”
    Then carefully untying his neck-cloth, he laid it across his knees, and deliberately untwisted fold after fold till he arrived at the little letter of poor Adèle…

After that, it doesn’t take much to reconcile the estranged lovers (although not before Count Romanhoff has eaten substantial humble pie); and only the humiliation awaiting Adèle in court clouds their happiness. But Alfred thinks he has a way around that, via the calling of a certain witness for the defence, who can prove Roger’s whereabouts at a time that Mme Bertrand was still in the ballroom:

“And then, Adèle, I, the gentleman thus alluded to, would come forward and testify on oath…that Roger Humphries was despatched at that hour by MY WIFE…”

Meanwhile— In spite of everything, Hargrave is increasingly unable to believe that Adèle will be able—or have the inclination—to save Roger without giving him away, and he comes up with a plan by which he may save his own skin. That it involves abandoning Sabina is a minor point. So distressed is she by his imminent departure—which he accounts for by a summons from Rome—her loving father refrains from telling her that he won’t be coming back, instead writing a letter to Madame de Hautrivage to let her know Sabina’s whereabouts and the glorious future in store for himself…

Fortunately, before Sabina has time to become aware of her new situation, her own future is unexpectedly settled. Without either her father or her sister for company, the lonely girl begins to takes long walks on her own. One day, she makes her way to the rock platform overhanging the lake, from where she first glimpsed the vanishing castle, and where she saw the handsome young peasant. It is a beautiful afternoon, and the view as spectacular as ever. As she contemplates the scene before her, Sabina feels comforted and serene—but not for long:

…she saw standing before her the identical hunter youth whom she had seen nearly a year before on exactly the same spot. His dress was the same, his stature was the same; the same bright curls which had attracted Sabina’s notice waved over his forehead. Yes, it was the same, and yet how different! The laughing light of the bright blue eyes …had given way to an anxious, agitated expression, that shewed his very soul was moved by the thoughts with which he was occupied. Sabina looked at him long and earnestly… At length the words burst from her, “Are you Prince Frederic?”

Meeting again in Paris the beautiful, romantic young girl he encountered so memorably while enjoying an incognito holiday (about which, the the way, he fibbed when Sabina asked him if he’d ever been to Baden-Baden; not only had he been there, of course, it’s his family’s castle she’s been living in!), Prince Frederic was immediately aware of his own danger, albeit determined to do his family duty—and believing, with more optimism than clear-sightedness, that the simple knowledge of Sabina’s inelibility would be enough to guard him. Total separation from Sabina was enough to cure him of that misapprehension; learning from Madame de Hautrivage that she was at Gernsbach, the final straw… It is true enough that Prince Frederic will have some explaining to do when he gets home—but right now he doesn’t really care. All he does care about is that Sabina knows a priest…

And with both sisters so happily married and secure, what of Hargrave himself?

When he fled the castle, Hagrave had a definite purpose in mind. He might be cut off forever from the glories of Paris, but there is, surely, another realm where a man of his particular talents might shine just as bright?

    Feeling pretty tolerably well convinced that the world commonly so called, was no longer a theatre upon which he could advantageously display himself, this same vital warmth gave him energy to turn his thoughts towards another, and the cloister, the consistory, the conclave of pope and cardinals,—nay, the very papal throne itself, all pressed forward upon his imagination as the scenery and decorations of a new one.
    And very splendid decorations, and a very brilliant scene, they afforded. The long and graceful vestments, the scarlet, the violet, and the ermine – even the white satin slipper, attracting eyes to the Apollo-like foot – were all remembered; and Mr Hargrave was quite aware that Apollo himself, had fifty mortal winters passed over him, could hardly assume a more graceful costume than that worn by the dignitaries of the Church of Rome. And then Mr Hargrave had read the enchanting papal biography of Roscoe, and really thought – a little induced thereto, perhaps, by his actual position – that after the first flush of youthful comeliness was past, it was hardly possible for a man to display himself to greater advantage than in the magnificent arena offered by the Church of Rome, or to settle down upon a cushion more delightfully soft than those prepared for her favourites.
    There were moments when the fumes of Mr Hargrave’s new and strongly fermenting piety so intoxicated his brain, that he was tempted to believe a ray of direct inspiration had fallen upon Mademoiselle de Cordillac when she suggested a plot for the restoration of Charles X as the cause of his running away from the police…

Frances Trollope might have had a poor opinion of the Catholic church, but it wasn’t so poor that she could imagine Charles Hargrave and his egotistical daydreams finding within it fulfillment rather than sackcloth and ashes. As a setting for punishment, on the other hand:

    The morality of poetical justice was not infringed in the destiny of Mr Hargrave. At any rate he thought himself considerably more than punished for all his sins, by learning the news of his daughter’s marriage immediately after he had put it out of his power to profit by it; for, getting alarmed by a paragraph in the Paris papers about the renewed search by the ‘unrivalled police’ for the perpetrator of the Bertrand robbery, he gave a considerable portion of the jewels which remained from it for permission to dispense with the ceremony of novitiate and to take the vows as a brother of one of the strictest religious societies in Spain; in which country he thought he should be less likely to be traced than at Rome…
    The whole thing, however, turned out to be more disagreeable and vexatious than he had the power to bear; for, instead of keeping his promise to Madame de Hautrivage and getting himself canonised, he was more than once threatened with the censures of the Church for various breaches of monastic discipline, so abominably ill-managed that they became subjects of scandal, which was of course more than his superior could overlook, especially after the last diamond had been lodged in his reverend hands as the price of absolution. So Mr Hargrave fell ill and died; a circumstance made known to the Princess Frederic with much ceremony, and over which she shed more tears than the object of them deserved…

29/10/2016

Hargrave; or, The Adventures Of A Man Of Fashion (Part 2)

hargrave2b    She knelt upon the ground, and used the instrument she had found to remove the soil. There was no difficulty in the task; it lay, lighter than the moist leaves which had concealed it, over a rudely-crushed mass of trinketry, hidden at the distance only of an inch or two beneath the surface. But this was not all: beside, or rather in the midst of this strangely bruised, but still glittering mass, lay a hammer, with a long, white, slender handle, exactly resembling that which she had seen in Mr Hargrave’s hand when he left the building.
    It was not suspicion— Oh no! it could not be suspicion which for an instant suspended the pulsations of her heart. ” What a fool I am to be thus terrified!” she said aloud. “What is it I am afraid of?” and having thus chid the weakness that for a moment had made her feel so deadly sick, she lifted the golden fragments from the earth, and then perceived that they consisted entirely of settings, from whence gems had been violently torn. But, while gazing on these unequivocal traces of rapine and violence, and completing the theory by which she accounted for the manner of Mr Hargrave’s going and coming, her eyes suddenly became fixed and distended; the things she held dropped from her hands, and she would have fallen with them had she not seized the branch of a tree, and, resting her head against it, sustained herself till the sudden faintness had passed.
    A moment before Adèle had accused herself of weakness, but now she wondered at her own strength, which enabled her to stand upright and in full possession of her senses, while convinced—perfectly, soberly convinced—that the ornaments she had just held in her hand were in many places spotted with blood! Alas ! the dreadful tale this told was but too legible. Not robbery alone, but murder had been committed on the premises…

With Prince Frederic’s attendance assured, Mr Hargrave sets about planning a party that like nothing Paris has ever seen; one that requires the redecoration of his mansion, with backdrops and hangings and coloured lanterns transforming the house into an Arabian Nights-like Wonderland:

He conducted the wandering trio through meandering passages, which led—upholsterers only knew how— to tents of Eastern splendour in one direction, and to twilight retreats of flowery sweetness in another; all managed with such mastery of deception, that of three apartments constructed in the gardens and approached from the principal salle de bal, through the aperture of a banished window, not one could be reached but by a complication of arcades, dazzling with a thousand many-coloured lamps…

Though generally much pleased with his arrangements, Hargrave confesses to Madame de Hautrivage and the girls that the “garden” room has turned out rather damp; and he exacts from all three a promise that they won’t risk themselves by entering it after the exercise of dancing.

In addition to the decorations, Hargrave secures another form of entertainment for his guests that borders on a freak-show. When Paris isn’t discussing the recent spate of robberies, it is fixated upon the startling conduct of a wealthy banker, M. Bertrand, who has become so obsessed with a beautiful young woman of the lower classes, he has actually married her!—and not only that, but expresses his passion by loading her with the most extraordinary collection of diamonds ever assembled. And because, next to his bride herself, the thing M. Bertrand loves best is showing her—and her diamonds—off in public, he accepts Hargrave’s invitation to his fête. Argument rages over whether Mme Bertrand is as virtuous as she is beautiful, as her besotted husband contends, or a startlingly successful little god-digger, and Paris is all agog at having an opportunity to decide for itself.

The girls anticipate the fête very differently; almost exchanging characters. The usually more subdued Sabina has been caught up in the excitement of the event, entering wholeheartedly into her father’s preparations and looking forward to a more than usually pleasant evening; while Adèle is still suffering from the consequences of her actions, and can take little pleasure in the party. However, she conceals her feelings from the other two, neither of whom suspects how deeply she is suffering.

The fête is literally and figuratively the centrepiece of Hargrave, finding the main characters both physically and emotionally separated from one another, and requiring Trollope to do some considerable juggling of her plot-threads. It isn’t always successful—the reader tends, in particular, to lose track of the time; of what is happening simultaneously and/or at any given moment—but such a lot is going on that this isn’t altogether surprising.

The Bertrands attend as promised, and Paris is somewhat disappointed to find them less ridiculous than anticipated: the age difference is not as great as rumour had it, and although shy and very awkward in society, Mme Betrand is young and pretty enough to be excused; and seems, besides, fond of her husband, if not as devoted to him as he is to her. However, her diamonds are all that was expected and more, even if they make her look rather like a walking display-case.

Hargrave’s first concern is with Prince Frederic; but as soon as he has seen the young royal waltzing with Sabina, he turns his attention to the Bertrands—or rather, to Mme Bertrand. Bertrand himself is a passionate whist-player, and so easily disposed of. This done, Hargrave devotes himself to Mme Bertrand, dancing with her repeatedly—despite her clumsiness in the ballroom—flattering her, attending to her needs, and generally giving the impression of a man infatuated—much to the amusement of many and the embarrassment of his daughters, to whom his behaviour seems so out of character as to be inexplicable.

Alfred Coventry does not attend the fête, but Count Romanhoff does—and he’s a man on a mission. Coventry is straining at his leash to leave Paris and has only been held back by the fact that Romanhoff, though he has agreed to join him on his travels to—somewhere; anywhere—has insisted that he can’t leave just yet. Angry and resentful over the hurt his friend has suffered, Romanhoff has nevertheless determined to find out whether there has in fact been some sort of misunderstanding, so that there might yet be a reconciliation, or if Adèle really is the heartless flirt that a bitter Coventry now believes her; and, without saying anything to his friend, he attends the fête for the sole purpose of confronting her.

Romanhoff gets all the attention he could desire from Adèle by telling her that Coventry has ordered his horses for five o’clock the following morning. However, finding somewhere to talk quietly in the midst of the greatest crush of the Paris season isn’t so easy. Adèle mentions that there is a private shortcut to the supper-rooms, which has been created for the convenience of the staff, and leads Romanhoff away from the crowds—and into another embarrassment, when the two of them overhear Hargrave talking to a rather suspicious-looking individual:

    The position in which Mr Hargrave and this man stood prevented either of them perceiving the approach of Count Romanhoff and Adèle, till they were near enough distinctly to hear Mr Hargrave say, “I adore her, Ruperto! Manage this matter for me skilfully, and the price named by you yesterday shall be doubled.”
    Mr Hargrave spoke in French, but the man whispered a reply in Italian, of which Adèle only heard enough to convince her that her step-father’s proposal was agreed to, whatever it was; for her companion, disagreeably aware that he had led the young lady into hearing what was certainly not intended for her, hastily turned in another direction…

The two find a quiet spot, but are further distracted, first by Hargrave behaving completely like his usual well-mannered self with the Duchesse de Vermont, and then a few minutes later being again utterly unlike himself with Mme Bertrand; while for Adèle, there is the added concern of Prince Frederic’s behaviour towards Sabina, which suggests that matters are becoming extremely serious.

But finally Romanhoff gets to the point, arguing his friend’s case. Uncertain himself of the rights and wrongs of the situation, his own manner towards Adèle fluctuates wildly as the various points occur to him. He has, perhaps, come there predisposed against Adèle in spite of his promise to himself that he will remain impartial; and he hardly knows whether to be sorry or cynically satisfied when the reaction he gets from her isn’t what he is expecting or considers appropriate:

…the last words were uttered in a tone of hauteur and indignation, which seemed to imply that it must be a very meek and humble-minded response which would satisfy him. Now, Mademoiselle de Cordillac was at that moment in no humour to be humble and meek to any body. All she wished and wanted on earth was before her—all she had ever asked from Heaven during the misery of the last dreadful fortnight was accorded. She was at liberty to open her whole heart to the only man she had ever dreamed it was possible to love; and that by an act of generosity, and not of degradation. For an instant her bright eye met that of Romanhoff; but there was a flashing joy in it that looked to him like triumph, which puzzled and alarmed him. “Have I undertaken this unauthorised mission,” thought he, ” solely to gratify the vanity of this unfeeling girl?”

And when, after a light remark totally disconnected from the matter at hand, Adèle abruptly leaves him, Romanhoff’s alarm and puzzlement turn to anger; and he leaves the fête determined not only that Coventry should know the worst, but that the two of them won’t be remaining in Paris a minute longer than necessary.

In fact, overcome by emotion which she is unable to express to a comparative stranger, and that a young man, Adèle’s one thought is to get a message to Coventry—a letter, to be carried by the faithful Roger Humphries, who has it impressed upon him the absolute necessity of reaching Coventry’s hotel before five o’clock. Roger is only too willing but, given that he is dressed in the elaborate livery that Hargrave demands his servants wear during an entertainment, he finds it necessary to stop long enough to change his shoes before setting out—with the result that Coventry and Romanhoff make their hurried departure exactly six minutes before Roger arrives at the hotel.

Though she does not hesitate to take the drastic step of sending, in effect, a love letter, Adèle is only too aware of how her conduct might be viewed by a third party. Shaken by this thought, though not dissuaded, and flustered by the night’s events, she retires from the party to her own room—which happens to overlook the garden and the outside walls of Hargrave’s arrangements for his fête

Meanwhile, though a number of the guests do depart after supper—among them Prince Frederic, following his usual line of conduct, and more aware than ever of the necessity of separating himself from Sabina—Hargrave’s party continues on into the early hours of the morning, with most of those remaining congregating in the ballroom either to dance, if they have the energy, or to amuse themselves with the efforts of the remaining determinedly energetic few. Amongst the latter are Hargrave and Mme Bertrand, who at one point even dance through an opening in the room’s hangings and out towards the garden. Sabina, who has not danced since the departure of the prince and would gladly go to bed, saw Adèle slip away earlier, and feels that she must stay to play hostess. She is therefore present when the last guests demand a cotillion to end the dance:

Just at the moment when the seemingly endless cotillion was at its highest point of vivacity, Sabina observed her father enter the room by a door leading from the supper-room; he was alone, and she was on the point of rising to meet him, when she perceived him very abruptly, as it seemed to her, seize the hand of a partnerless lady, and dart forward with her into the middle of the dance, with an air of frolic and defiance of etiquette both equally foreign to his usual style and manner. Sabina disliked the cotillion. and never danced in it; but she felt now that she disliked it more than ever, as the rude vortex of its mirth seemed to constrain her father to put off his graceful stateliness in order to join in its turbulent evolutions. As the figure of the dance brought him nearer to her, however, an idea occurred greatly more painful than any suggested by the circumstances of his condescending to join in a dance which she did not admire,—she thought he was intoxicated! and the strangely unsettled expression of his eye, as well as a most unwonted want of sedateness in all his movements, fully justified the idea…

To Sabina’s relief, Hargrave pulls himself together as soon as the dance is over, and devotes himself to the task of bidding farewell to his last guests: a duty which devolves into dealing with a scene in the vestibule.

M. Bertrand has at last emerged from the card-room, to discover that his wife is nowhere to be found. Three other guests, M. de Beauvet, M. de Soissons and Lord Hartwell, are the recipients of his panicked complaints before the arrival of Hargrave, whose calm suggestion that Mme Bertrand was tired and went home on her own is passionately rejected by her husband. Moreover, the Bertrand carriage is found waiting in the courtyard:

“Gracious Heavens!” cried the unhappy husband… “Oh! doubtless she was carried off…and must now, with all that mine of wealth about her, be far beyond the reach of pursuit. Yet think not,” he added, with a burst of very genuine tears,—“think not, gentlemen, that I am wretch enough to think of the loss of diamonds at such a moment as this. Alas! the naming of them only shews what I think to be the cause of my loss. She would not have left me, do not think it, gentlemen; she has been snatched away during the hurry and crowding which probably took place on leaving the supper-room, and, ere this time, may have been both robbed and murdered!” And again the poor man wept bitterly.

The others try to determine when Mme Bertrand was last seen. Sabina mentions that she saw her at supper, while Hargrave, contradicting M. Bertrand’s version of events, asserts that he danced with her after supper, and thinks he saw her dancing with someone else later again, although he cannot remember who.

An hysterical M. Bertrand then departs the house, probably, the others think, to alert the police. As soon as he has gone, Hargrave shrugs to the others that, in his opinion, this is not an abduction, but an elopement. Pausing only to send Sabina to bed, he then repeats to the men various incidents that occurred and words uttered by Mme Bertrand during the evening that make him suspect that her disappearance is voluntary. With this reassurance, the others take their departure.

On her way upstairs, Sabina hesitates outside Adèle’s door, longing to talk to her about what has happened but worried that her early retirement from the party means that she was unwell. Not wanting to wake her, she passes on to her own room. But she need not have worried: Adèle has been too agitated to sleep, and instead has spent the night pacing her room, listening to the music and other sounds from below. These are still audible even with the coming of the dawn. Adèle sits at her windows, enjoying the cool of the April morning—and sees something strange: a person, or persons, in the garden, moving amongst the shadows cast by the temporary buildings and their surrounding decorative evergreens. She also hears a noise that sounds like a muffled cry.

Reluctantly, Adèle recalls the words she overheard spoken by her step-father to the uncouth stranger; wondering if this activity has something to do with their plan.

It is some time after this that Adèle hears Sabina outside her door. She stays still and silent, hoping that her sister will not come in; feeling unable to discuss with her either her own situation, or what she thinks she knows of Hargrave’s doings. Left securely alone, Adèle then drops into a doze, only to be wakened by a noise in the garden. By this time it is full daylight, and she watches as Hargrave emerges from behind the canvas hangings, carrying something she cannot see clearly—a tool, she thinks—and slips around the corner of the pavilion. Minutes later he returns; there is no sign of the tool, but instead he is carrying something bundled up in a large silk handkerchief.

Between her fruitless conjectures over what she has witnessed, and her impatience at Roger’s apparent failure to return, Adèle is thoroughly awake again, and decides to dress herself: she doesn’t want a maid’s prying eyes on her. While brushing out her very long hair, she accidentally knocks her brush sharply against her dressing-table, and as she fears, the noise brings to her room the last person she wants to see. She tries to hide her excited state from Hargrave, but his mention of an incident in the house alarms her; though his own evident unconcern and declared determination to get some sleep reassure her. Secure that he has retired to rest, she decides to slip downstairs and see if Roger has in fact returned but perhaps hesitated to wake her.

There is no sign of him, however, and with nothing to do and no-one up to talk to, Adèle’s thoughts turn back to what she saw from her window. She makes her way to the “garden” room, the furthest point of the redecorations, and from there into the garden itself—not without realising for the first time how the design of this final room makes the point of exit almost impossible to find, if someone did not know it was there. Outside, she finds herself quite bewildered as to what her step-father could have been doing in the little that remains of their undisturbed grounds—or are they undisturbed?

…her steps were arrested by the sight of a trowel, such as masons use. She stooped and took it up. Could this be the implement which she had discerned in her step-father’s hand as he went out?—she thought not. She had distinctly seen what appeared to be a longer, slenderer, and a lighter-coloured handle than that of the implement she had found, and she let it drop on the place from whence she had taken it. Before she passed on, however, she gave another glance to it as it lay upon the ground; and as she turned her eyes from it…they were attracted by the gleaming of some bright but minute object, lying at the edge of a heap of withered leaves which seemed raked together from an abundance of others with which the ground was covered. She moved the moist and dirty-looking mass with her foot, for its appearance was not inviting to her ungloved fingers; but this daintiness speedily vanished before what her foot disclosed; and stooping, without further ceremony, she plunged her hand into the wet mass, and drew thence a long chain of gold, the clasp of which had evidently been torn off, as well as something which had been attached to the centre, for the link from which it had hung had been wrenched asunder…

Adèle’s further explorations uncover a mass of such damaged gold—jewellery settings, from which the jewels themselves have been torn away—and which in some places is clearly spotted with blood.

Robbery and murder present themselves to Adèle’s shocked mind as she hurriedly puts things back the way they were, wishing she hadn’t done anything that might involve her as a witness. This, then, is the “incident” that Hargrave referred to, and explains his presence in the garden: he, too, must have been looking for evidence.

Shaken by this experience, worried by Roger’s non-appearance, and exhausted by the night’s events, Adèle slips back into her room and cries herself to sleep.

Later that day, the weary family members rise and dress, and Sabina gives Adèle a circumstantial account of what passed after she retired. Adèle does not mention her own experiences, but tries to reconcile her knowledge with what Sabina tells her. She is particularly interested in the cotillion, since she heard the music clearly in her room, and knows that the lengthy dance was underway when she caught her first glimpse of the stranger in the garden. Sabina’s description of Hargrave’s late entry seems to confirm her suspicion that it was he she saw. Furthermore, she cannot help but remember the muffled cry, and to weigh it against Hargrave’s statement about when he last saw Mme Bertrand in the ballroom. Her thoughts distress her to a degree which she cannot hide from Sabina, although she makes one firm resolution:

But the more these hateful suspicions settled upon her mind, the more earnest became her wish to conceal them completely and for ever from Sabina. She knew the tender devotion of her attachment to this mysterious father, and she felt that either her life or her reason would probably be the sacrifice were she to know such thoughts had ever been conceived concerning him. But Sabina’s eye was upon her, and she feared that she would sink before it. There was one way, and one only that suggested itself, by which such a turn might be given to their conversation as might account for her own weakness without disclosing the real cause of it. Adèle related with as much distinctness as was in her power all that Count Romanhoff had said to her, and the sudden resolution of sending to Coventry, which had been its result…

Sabina is, as hoped, completely distracted. She sympathises with Adèle, insisting that she was quite right to send a message to Coventry in spite of the potential for scandal, should anyone find out; but when she learns that Adèle has had no answer, she assumes she has been too scared to inquire of Roger, and scolds her for being so cowardly. The self-conscious Adèle doesn’t tell her that she knows Roger isn’t back, but accepts these strictures and allows Sabina to send for him—and find out for herself there’s no sign of him.

Puzzled, Sabina casts around for an explanation, and finally concludes that, discovering that Coventry had departed Paris, Roger went after him. She intends this theory to soothe the distressed Adèle, who in truth isn’t even thinking about her own situation, except as it serves her to conceal her real thoughts from Sabina. She encourages Sabina to talk about the party—although not about Mme Bertrand—and learns from her that Prince Frederic intends departing Paris, and that he will make an announcement to that effect at his own party. This being the case, Sabina also confesses that she might have been in danger had, as she puts it, Frederic been “less royal”. As it is, they parted the night before understanding one another and their relative positions, with mutual respect and more feeling on both sides than either cared to admit.

So where is Roger?

After the hurried departure of M. Bertrand, the three other witnesses to his tragedy also depart. Lord Hartwell’s carriage is at the door, but M. de Beauvet and M. de Soissons have to walk to a nearby lane to find theirs—where they see an odd sight: an elderly man with a great-coat over his livery at the back gate of the Hargrave mansion who, when he realises he has been seen, turns and hurries away again. Given the events of the night, the two men go in pursuit, in company with another Hargrave servant whom they call to their assistance. The three corner Roger in an alley, where his evident agitation and his refusal to explain himself increase their suspicions, and he finds himself subjected to a citizen’s arrest.

Unfortunately for Roger, the other servant is Louis Querin, a footman, who hates him for a variety of petty reasons that none the less add up to a virulent total. Overjoyed at seeing the man he considers his enemy in danger of arrest, Querin does everything he can to blacken Roger’s name. The gentleman believe him, having no reason not to, and send him back to the house under a warning to tell no-one what has happened, in case Roger has confederates. Roger himself gets carried away and handed over to the police as a suspect in the disappearance of Mme Bertrand.

Meanwhile, Hargrave is receiving the expected visit of his hostile creditor, M. Marsen, who receives the long-delayed repayment of his loan—as agreed, chiefly in the form of jewels.

Marsen has barely departed when Hargrave is called upon by M. de Beauvet and M. de Soissons, who tell him that they have been inquiring into the circumstances of Mme Bertrand’s disappearance. This announcement turns Hargrave rather pale, but he gets his colour back when they add that Roger Humphries is in police custody, being asked by officialdom to explain his suspicious behaviour. After a moment’s thought, Hargrave expresses his great surprise, and his belief in Roger’s innocence, before again suggesting that Mme Bertrand eloped with a lover, and there’s no need for fuss, still less for the police…

However, M. de Soissons is acquainted with some people who are acquainted with the Bertrands, and is able to assert on their authority that despite the lowness of her origins, Mme Bertrand has, since her marriage, conducted herself modestly, and shown every sign of being attached to her husband for more than his wealth; that, conversely, the police do not believe that having secured such a marriage, she would have thrown it all away so quickly; that they are treating the incident as an abduction, and are inclined to look for suspects amongst those present at Hargrave’s fête:

“Nay, then,” returned Mr Hargrave, sighing, while his deportment suddenly changed from gay to grave,—“nay, then, if this be the case, I fear, indeed, that old Roger may have had a hand in it. The old man has often shewn himself avaricious; it is, as we all know, the vice of age—and I will not deny the having been long aware that it was his. But if robbery has been intended, gentlemen, depend upon it that it has been perpetrated under the mask of love; and that all the guilt which lies at the door of old Roger is that he has received a bribe,—a heavy one, I doubt not, to render the elopement easy.”

For his part, M. de Soissons does not think that Roger’s so-far obstinate silence under police questioning is in accord with him assisting an elopement. The two visitors then request Hargrave to accompany them to witness further questioning, at which they have agreed to act on behalf of M. Bertrand, but Hargrave refuses on the basis of Roger’s long service in his household: he feels, consequently, that he should stay aloof from the proceedings.

Hargrave then joins the girls, a meeting from which Adèle excuses herself as quickly as possible. Hargrave is concerned about her, but not as concerned as he is to hear how Sabina left matters with Prince Frederic. Sabina cannot answer without emotion—which her father, at first, completely misinterprets:

    The pause she made sufficed to let loose the coursers of Mr Hargrave’s imagination, and on they galloped even to the utmost goal of his wishes. “My darling, sweet Sabina!” he exclaimed, “fear not to trust your father! Tell me what he said!—tell me all!”
    “Nay, papa,” replied Sabina gently, “it was not much; only I have seen him so often lately that I was rather sorry for it. He only said that he was going to leave Paris immediately after his own ball…”
    “Leave Paris!” cried Mr Hargrave, gasping,—“leave Paris immediately! It is impossible, Sabina! You do not believe he was in earnest?”
    “Oh, yes, papa, he was quite in earnest,” said Sabina quietly; her composure restored, as it seemed, by her father’s want of it.
    “Then he is—” vehemently ejaculated Mr Hargrave; but suddenly stopping himself, he added, in a tone as light as he could contrive to make it, “a very capricious fellow.”

But Hargrave isn’t the man to give up without a fight. Pulling himself together, and ignoring Sabina’s quiet insistence that there can never be anything between herself and Prince Frederic, he tells himself that there is still one last chance, the prince’s own ball: one last chance to throw Sabina in his way, one last chance for the prince’s heart to overrule his royal training:

“So!” he exclaimed, as he once again enclosed himself himself in his library, “the plot thickens upon me. Glory, honour, and magnificence for life, or ruin, exposure, and death!”

Down at the offices of the Correctional Police, M. de Beauvet and M. de Soissons give their depositions, while Louis Querin does everything he can to make trouble for Roger. His personal enmity is obvious, but still the police are impressed by his assertion that Roger was absent from his duties for several hours during the party, before making his surreptitious attempt to re-enter the grounds of the Hargrave mansion.

As for Roger, he is happy to answer questions—up to a point: he refuses absolutely to account for his movements, to explain where he had been before being spotted at the gate. He is also willing to be searched—up to a point: he turns out his pockets and removes his coat and his waistcoat without hesitation, offering to remove his boots and stockings; pleased that, as he anticipated, the police do not think to inspect his cravat; where, amongst its numerous folds, is nestled Adèle’s note to Alfred Coventry.

But the contents of his pockets cause more trouble for Roger, since they include several gold sovereigns of the type stolen from M. Roland outside Riccardo’s. Roger explains readily enough that the coins were part of his wages, paid to him by his master, Mr Hargrave. The police decide that this is a statement requiring further investigation. Roger is returned to his cell, and Louis Querin, much to his delight, is retained as a police-agent: if Roger is guilty, he may have had confederates, possibly amongst the other servants. Querin is to keep his eyes and ears open, and his mouth shut.

That afternoon, M. Collet of the police and several of his men arrive to inspect the Hargrave mansion, including the garden-gate where Roger was seized, and the small patch of ground surrounding the still-standing canvas rooms. They note, as Adèle did, how hard it is to see the exit into the garden from the inside (a feature which they later learn was designed by Mr Hargrave); and they also find the marks of a woman’s footprints—as well as signs that she may have been dragged through the garden. Finally, they locate the buried items:

Precisely the same process which had been performed by Mademoiselle de Cordillac about nine hours before was now repeated by the agents of the police…but the discoveries of those who followed her went farther, for M. Collet himself using the trowel found on the ground, with considerable strength and agility, perceived that the earth had been moved to a greater depth than that of the spot where the settings of the mutilated trinkets lay, and presently came to the corner of a delicate white silk pocket-handkerchief, which, having been seized and dragged from its dark receptacle, was perceived to be copiously stained with blood…

What the police don’t know is that they are being watched. Before their arrival, a restless Adèle had ventured out for some air; she was at the hidden exit when the police began their work, and retreated no further than an aperture left for the servants to pass refreshments and dishes through, from where she could both hear and see, without being seen herself. Horrified by the discoveries, she slips back to her room to contemplate their implications:

With the resolute calmness which an urgent necessity is almost sure to inspire in such a mind as Adèle’s, she once more set herself to examine all the facts which had come to her knowledge since this dreadful period of her existence began. She had heard Mr Hargrave engage an agent to assist him in obtaining possession of some female whom he professed to adore. He had paid a degree of attention to Madame Bertrand, which might easily enough be interpreted into making love to her. Madame Bertrand has subsequently disappeared, and Adèle had great reason to believe that Mr Hargrave had assisted in her abduction. This was bad enough, and sufficiently lamentable to cause her the deepest regret; but how immensely distant was such regret from the feelings which must follow upon believing that her step-father was guilty of the crimes which she could not doubt that the agents of the police were prepared to lay to his door! But how was she to separate and divide events which were so closely woven together? How separate the abduction of Madame Bertrand from the horrible fate which had too evidently followed it?

In fact, she can’t: unable to reconcile the evidence before her with the step-father who raised her, Adèle can only conclude that there is something she doesn’t know, something that will throw a whole new light upon these terrible events and allow Hargrave to exonerate himself from, at least, the worst of the charges. She makes up her mind that, painful as the scene must be, she will seek out her step-father, lay before him all that she knows, and ask him to explain.

She cannot do it immediately, however, because Hargrave is out taking a drive:

During the course of which drive he had met nine-tenths of the elegant idlers of Paris, to nearly all of whom he was known, and with any of whom he stopped to hear and to utter a light word or two upon the misfortune of the unlucky millionaire, who had lost the pretty wife he had purchased, before he had got tired of her. To all of these Mr Hargrave related, with much humour, the tragic-comic scene which had been performed in his ball the preceding night, declaring, that though he could not help but laugh at the recollection of poor M. Bertrand’s gesticulate despair, it had really affected him very differently at the time, and that, all jesting apart, he was very sorry for him…

After such a tiring afternoon, following on from an exhausting night, and with yet another evening party ahead of him, at the home of a certain Ambassador, Hargrave decides that he’s earned a nap, and takes it on the couch in his library. It is here that Adèle finds him, when she has worked her courage up sufficiently to confront him.

Adèle, as we have seen, is trying desperately to believe that Hargrave is not guilty of any, or all, of the acts of which she cannot help suspecting him; yet the fact that he immediately speaks lightly of Mme Bertrand, in effect doing for her the same routine that he has been doing in the park—that there is something, as she thinks, so revoltingly incongruous, in his jocular tone—causes her to change her mind in a moment:

    “Do not, father!” said Adèle, in a voice that might have startled any man, let his nerves have been in what state they would. Though speaking to her, he had as yet hardly looked in her face, for he lay stretched with apparent listlessness on his back, with his half-closed eyes fixed upon the ceiling. But now he started up and gazed at her with orbs that seemed starting from their sockets. All self-command was for the moment lost, and fear and guilt looked out through every feature.
    Adèle felt as if the dark curtain which concealed the truth had been drawn up before her eyes, and that all which her soul shrunk from looking on, was now disclosed…

But luckily for Hargrave, all of Adèle’s most urgent thoughts and feelings are centred not upon him, but upon Sabina, who she determines must be protected from the truth at all cost, and most of all from the horror of having her father exposed as the worst of criminals. For Sabina’s sake, she will do anything to save Hargrave—in fact, whatever it takes:

    “Father! there must be no questions asked, and I must manage for you,” she said, with a degree of sedate steadiness that did more towards bringing the unhappy man out of his seeming trance than any exclamations could have done.
    “You know it all then, Adèle?” he replied, his fixed features relaxing and his pale lips trembling…
    “All, father, all! And you must leave Paris this night, and France with all the speed we may…”

[To be continued…]

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

20/09/2014

Three Men And A Maid

fraser1    Philip, unnerved and horrified, scared at himself, at the eruption of his own rage, at the tarnishing of his honour, leapt across the slab across the entrance, and was running wild, plunging through the bracken, over the boundary-stone, down to the water-side and along it, as if flying from death, his hair lifting on the winds, his eyes agaze with suffering. By the time he reached the bridge he was quite breathless, but still at a mechanical trot he went on, over the bridge, up the steep of the village street, and the three or four boys and girls still playing at that hour out of doors gaped at the sight of the distracted man who rushed past them. On to the Greyhound on his left he went, and past it to the arcade on its south wall stretching down the alley, under which, all alone, stood Marjorie awaiting him: Marjorie, gloved and hatted, ready to go with him, wondering why he was late, her trunks already smuggled out of the hotel to the station by connivance of Hannah and her aunt.
    By a sideward look down the alley Philip saw her. In her sudden distress it seemed to her that he had forgotten her. He seemed hardly to recognise her for a moment, his stare was so fixed and glassy. Nor did he stop. When she, in her awe and surprise, made a step to follow him, he stretched out his left hand backward at her to stop her with such as aspect of gloomy warning in his look as her heart likened to the gaze of lost mortals, nor ever forgot to her dying day. In spite of herself she was struck rigid by it, for that forbidding hand was as peremptory as a law of fate…

Having succeeded in reviving Authors In Depth with The Mysterious Wife (and its associated investigation into The Mysterious Author), next cab off the rank was the equally long-neglected Reading Roulette.

The last spin of the random number generator landed me upon a short work from 1907, Three Men And A Maid by Robert Fraser—except that “Robert Fraser” turned out to be a pseudonym concealing two unlikely collaborators. Louis Tracy was a one-time army officer who then went into journalism, and who began in the late 19th century to supplement his income by writing fiction. In fact, “supplement” is a bit of an understatement: Tracy was a prolific writer who turned out novels and serialised stories for the magazines at quite a ferocious clip. He specialised in crime and adventure stories, although his greatest success came with The Final War, a paranoid fantasy in which Great Britain is betrayed and attacked by an allied French-German force. Tracy’s work was always jingoistic to the point of xenophobia, and the novel is a perverse kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy, one equally convinced of Britain’s unassailable position as the greatest country in the world and of the innate treachery of “foreigners” (ad infinitum) who, though vicious, deceitful and homicidal, are also craven at heart and therefore easily defeated.

Another prolific writer of popular fiction around the dawn of the 20th century was M. P. Shiel, who specialised in science fiction and the supernatural, but was also known for crime fiction featuring various master-criminals. His most successful work was The Purple Cloud, an apocalyptic fantasy in which an explorer returns from the North Pole to discover that a cataclysmic disaster has left him the last man on earth. Shiel had high ambitions for his writing that sorely conflicted with his constant need for money, the latter driving him to turn out what he dismissively called “hack-work”, though it was usually entertaining. The failure of some of his more experimental work prompted him to form a writing partnership with Louis Tracy with whom, other than the pace of their commercial work, he had little if anything in common. The two had first collaborated, sort of, when Tracy fell ill during the serialisation of his novel, The American Emperor, and Shiel was brought in to write one the instalments. After that the two men co-authored several works under the pseudonyms “Gordon Holmes” and “Robert Fraser”.

Three Men And A Maid (published first in the US, then in the UK as Fennell’s Tower) does not begin too promisingly, it must be said. What we seem—stress, seem—to have on our hands at the outset is a rather over-turgid romance, with a beautiful village lass being pursued by three very different but equally determined – not to say obsessive – suitors.

The lass is Marjorie Neyland: she is only the daughter of a local inn-keeper, but her artistic ability and the sympathy of an aunt with an independent income sees her whisked away to London for a time to study. Marjorie is both beautiful and good-natured, and by the time she returns to her family she has acquired too a certain air of refinement. She has also learned to despise her family—or at least, she is accused of doing so by her older sister Hannah, who sees the effect of Marjorie upon the local gentleman, and conceives for her a deep and bitter hatred:

    “She has only come here to upset the whole place,” said she, viciously stabbing a hole in the turf with her umbrella-tip. “She might have stayed where she was in London, studying her ‘Art’, and not been missed, I’m sure! But from the day she put her foot back in Hudston, everybody seems to have taken leave of their senses…”
    “Did you ever happen to hear of a certain Helen of Troy?” asked James Courthope, fingering the end of his blonde beard.
    “I’ve heard the name, I think,” answered the frowning Hannah. “Who was she?”
    “A young lady with a classic nose, and no doubt a naughty little fire in the corner of her eye; and because of these a city was sacked, and many souls of heroes were sent down to you know where. It isn’t an unusual thing, but we don’t want it going on at Hudston…”

The first of the three men is Robert Courthope, the local squire: a hot-tempered, hard-living, hard-drinking individual oblivious to women until the day when he tries to trifle with the pretty inn-keeper’s daughter and in addition to being firmly repulsed receives a sharp lessen in respectful behaviour. Losing his heart in an instant to the unexpectedly ladylike Marjorie, the squire makes up his mind to marry her—and since, as squire, he holds the lease on the Greyhound Inn, the public house run by Marjorie’s father, it does not occur to him that there will be any obstacle to his plans.

The second man is James Courthope, the squire’s cousin and heir. Although he has been trifling with Hannah, even to the point of making vague promises of marriage, James too is smitten with Marjorie. The squire’s reckless way of life has damaged his health, though he is only a young man, and until now James has been serenely confident of inheriting all upon his cousin’s early death. However, Robert’s sudden passion for Marjorie poses an unexpected danger, and James determines that a marriage between them must be prevented at all cost. His sharp eyes have seen that a romance is developing between Marjorie and another visitor to the area, Philip Warren, the nephew of the local vicar. Confident that if the squire does not marry Marjorie he will not marry anyone, James concludes that a hasty marriage between Marjorie and Philip would best serve his purpose. He finds an eager collaborator in Hannah, to whom the thought of Marjorie becoming the lady of the manor is torment.

An odd mixture of the scholar and the athlete, Philip Warren has a passion for antiquities and is an expert on the history of his ancestors, the de Warrenes; he is also deeply superstitious about the signet ring he wears, an inheritance of the de Warrenes, which traditionally brings good fortune to the wearer, while its loss would mean disaster. The vagaries of Philip’s life have left him dependent upon his uncle, the aesthete Mr Isambard, whose profound pride of family is at odds with his calling. Philip knows very well how his uncle would react to the thought of his marriage to Marjorie, who despite her personal qualities is anything but a lady by birth, and realises he must devote some time to carving his own way in the world and earning enough to support a wife—even if it means being separated from Marjorie for a time.

As anticipated, Robert Courthope calls upon the Neylands to ask Marjorie to marry him—but Marjorie, forewarned, slips away and hides in the tangled garden behind the Greyhound. While there, she receives a message, carried by the “simple” boy Felix, to meet Philip Warren at an ancient, isolated structure known as Fennell’s Tower. Marjorie is puzzled and apprehensive, but finally decides to go. Sure enough, Philip is there—and by the time the two realise that neither of them sent for the other, the door of the structure, long wedged open, has been slammed shut and locked…

Even the sure knowledge that Marjorie is compromised and disgraced, that she will never be the wife of the squire, cannot hold Hannah entirely silent, despite James’ warning to let events play themselves out. The squire, already furious and humiliated by Marjorie’s evasion of his proposal, is driven nearly to madness when Hannah hints at her whereabouts—and who she is with:

The moon was moving wildly in and out among flying masses of cloud, lighting them here and there to the whiteness of lunatic countenances, so Robert Courthope could see the two prisoners. Little he dreamed that they were not there of their own free will, and, indeed, he might well be forgiven his unhappy error at that moment. They were standing on the roof, and the battlement coping hid them no higher than Marjorie’s waist. The clean, high-headed profile of Philip, bending over Marjorie, looked almost elfin in the moonshine, while Marjorie’s arms cast about Philip’s neck had, in the maddened eyes of the man beneath, a certain wildness of abandonment. He could see, but because he could not see nearly and clearly, the scene up there on the tower-top was touched for him with something of strangeness and glamour, which poisoned his jealousy with a drop of mere mortal gall. That same redness and shaking of the face with which he had lately glared at Hannah in the hotel overcame him now, and he glared at them in their heaven, until finally there gushed from his throat one loud, long bellow of uncouth laughter, which the storm and the moor flung far in echoes down the valley…

Marjorie and Philip are eventually released by a passing doctor on a house-call, but the damage has been done. Robert has dripped poison in the ears of Mr Isambard, who is every bit as disgusted about his nephew’s involvement with a woman of “that class” as Philip anticipated. His way of speaking of Marjorie prompts a quarrel that ends with Philip being turned out of the vicarage, almost literally penniless. When he later tries to explain to Marjorie why he cannot marry her immediately, as he wishes to do even regardless of his need to make reparation to her, she won’t hear a word of it, finally persuading him to live on what her Aunt Margaret can give and she earn with her painting until he can support them both. The two make plans to leave Hudston and marry in London, but circumstances intervene…

Having recognised Robert Courthope’s laugh, Philip believes it was he who locked the door to Fennell’s Tower. A furious confrontation between the two ends in an extraordinary proposition. Robert and Philip have often fenced together; now, Robert challenges to Philip to an old-fashioned duel, the loser – should he still be alive – to have nothing to do with Marjorie in any way for a period of five years. Goaded beyond endurance, Philip accepts. The two men agree to meet that evening at a nearby ruined church. Both write letters explaining the circumstances, in case of misadventure, while Robert makes a will leaving everything to Marjorie.

It is from the site of the duel that Philip flees, repulsing Marjorie as she waits to take the train with him to London, and vanishing from the eyes of men. The next morning the dead body of Robert Courthope is found in the ruined church. There is only one sword at the scene—and its point is buried deeply in the squire’s heart…

The death of Robert Courthope brings upon the scene Inspector Webster of Scotland Yard, and all of a sudden the narrative of Three Men And A Maid—to this point a straight-faced and rather purple-prosed romantic melodrama—suddenly takes on a new lease of life. The story itself suddenly transforms into a murder mystery with a courtroom scene climax (one of its two climaxes, anyway), in the process acquiring a welcome albeit somewhat mordant note of humour. Inspector Webster is quite an original, and I am disappointed to have to report that while Louis Tracy did write a few crime series with recurring characters, this seems to be the only appearance of the “plump, bullet-headed, bullet-eyed” police detective:

    After bidding the local police disperse the villagers to bed by spreading the news that Philip Warren was under arrest, he went to the inn where he lodged, wrote several letters, posted them, built up a good fire, obtained a fresh supply of cigars, and locked the door of his sitting-room. Then he took from a drawer a rough map of Hudston, embracing Fennell’s Tower, Netherend Hill, Edenhurst Court, and Lancault. On the map he staged a number of small leaden figures, types of soldiers and army nurses which had served many purposes in their day. For these were Webster’s puppets when he tied to reconstruct a crime, and every little mannikin had been labelled with names famous in the annals of Scotland Yard…
    “How many people knew that Warren was in Lancault, and how many that Courthope meant to meet him there?” asked Webster. “James knew, and Hannah, and Marjorie, and Bennett, and Archibald, the groom, and Felix, the idiot. Some knew only of the one man’s presence, others knew of both. James knew everything, because he rode like a madman to Nutworth to warn Bennett of Robert’s intention to make the will which would disinherit him. What did those two precious rascals plan? They could not be sure of Robert’s death, because accidents may happen, and an accident did happen in this case, whereby the better fencer was beaten… Obviously, the one man who, next to Warren, had a mortal interest in the fight was James. Come on, Jimmie! Hunt ball or no, you must have been peeping into Lancault at 9.15 pm…”

The involvement of Inspector Webster in the investigation of Courthope’s death has the further benefit of bringing out the best in Marjorie, until then rather too much given to tears and collapses, although understandably so. Although he is presumably there to find and arrest the missing Philip Warren, Marjorie gets a trustworthy sense from Webster, and carries to him her knowledge and discoveries. The suspicion that he is only humouring her puts Marjorie on her mettle, and a partnership of sorts develops between the two, which on Webster’s part becomes increasingly respectful and sympathetic. Marjorie believes passionately that whatever happened between Philip Warren and Robert Courthope, the squire’s death was not murder; while Webster has seen and heard enough during the inquest to convince him that there is far more to Courthope’s death than meets the eye.

Indeed, mystery begins to pile upon mystery—one being why the squire would have summoned Hannah Neyland to witness what turns out to be nothing more important than a document pertaining to a land sale; another, why (as James testifies) the squire told his cousin that he locked Philip and Marjorie in, when he clearly did not; and yet another the origin of the crumpled, bloodstained letter that Marjorie finds among Hannah’s things while looking for a handkerchief (and of which she gains possession only after a spirited and surprisingly physical cat-fight). And above all, of course, we have the question of why, since two swords were evidently taken to the scene, Phillip Warren (if it were he) would have carried away his opponent’s weapon while leaving his own, identifiable as his, in the dead man’s body…

    “Proofs? Innocence?” asked the Inspector with a fine assumption of wonder. “Innocence of what?”
    “Of murder at least? Doesn’t this thing prove that there was a duel?”
    “If one man kills another in a duel, isn’t that murder? Not a very ugly murder, perhaps, but still murder in England. And why do you suppose that this letter and envelope constitute a proof that there was a duel? They don’t.”
    “They do to me.”
    “To you, no doubt. Others may be harder to convince. Suppose that Warren did assassinate the Squire, what was to prevent him, after the deed, from scribbling in pencil that there had been a duel, then enclosing it in an envelope out of the dead man’s pocket?”
    “But what marvellous luck to find in the dead man’s pocket an envelope in his own writing!” said Marjorie, “and an envelope directed to, of all appropriate people, the County Coroner!”
    “Queer, isn’t it?” said the Inspector, smiling.

Given the nature of Three Men And A Maid, it would be unfair to reveal too much about the true circumstances of Robert Courthope’s death; though more crimes than one must be solved before the matter is elucidated, and another, equally serious, averted.

A bonus for the reader offered by this short novel is its sense of the early 20th century. The fact that Hudston is “on the post-office telephone system” and may therefore be contacted directly by telegram is an important advantage at various points of Webster’s investigation. Meanwhile, in London at least, a young woman may live alone in a studio apartment and dine at a restaurant with a man without attracting notice or criticism; and while hansom cabs are still the most common form of public transport, more advanced institutions, such as expensive hotels and even Scotland Yard itself, are beginning to rely upon the “electric brougham”.

Speaking of Scotland Yard, one of the most interesting short passages in this novel gives us a glimpse into the dawn of forensic science:

    As Philip had assured him most positively that the sword found in Robert’s body was his, Philip’s, it followed that this sword, discovered by Webster himself, on the third day after the murder, plunged up to the hilt in the clay of the river bank quite a hundred yards from Lancault Church, was the weapon which had fallen he lifeless hand of the unfortunate Squire.
    The detective’s trained art had stopped him from withdrawing the rapier at once from its earthy sheath. He obtained a spade, and disinterred it, taking infinite pains to secure every particle of soil that adhered  the steel. As a result, a report from the Government analyst was now in his pocket. The laboratory had revealed that the point of the blade and some few grains of earth bore chemical traces of the blood of a mammal. Beyond that the expert could not go, but Webster knew that he held in his hand the sword which had wounded Warren and snapped his ring.

All in all, then, Three Men And A Maid is an enjoyable read—though you need to be able to accept its more melodramatic aspects, like the duel and its consequences, and Philip’s belief in the fate associated with his ring, and its emphasis on the Philip-Marjorie romance. It is most successful as a mystery, being consistently entertaining and offering some surprises along the way—such as the revelation that, intelligent, imaginative and resourceful though he is, Inspector Webster is not quite infallible…

    The second alternative was so staggering that he refused to permit it to take form in his brain. Nevertheless, as the homely phrase declares, he went hot and cold all over, a somewhat difficult and complex operation which, in the present instance, demanded the immediate swallowing of a tonic.
    “By gad!” he said again, when he dared to think. But he managed to smile at the monster his imagination had created. He was vain of his professional skill. Not willingly would he admit that he had blundered…

28/12/2013

Adventures Of Susan Hopley; or, Circumstantial Evidence

crowe1a    “My brother, my only connexion in the world…was declared a robber and a murderer—the worst of murderers, for he had murdered his benefactor—he was a fugitive, hiding from justice, and a price was set upon his head—our name was branded with infamy… Would it not be better, I said to myself, to end my life at once, than drag on a miserable existence, exposed to insult, want, and every kind of wretchedness, till a lingering death terminates my sufferings, or till the cruelty of the world forces me to some act that might justify the ill opinion it entertains of me?
    “But then, again,” I said, “if I could clear Andrew’s character? If I could live to see the day when we might lift up our heads again, and cry to the world, ‘You’ve wronged us!’ For my heart still told me he was not guilty; and that if he were alive, he would surely come forward and vindicate himself; and if he were dead, his body would yet be found, and his wounds speak for him. Would it not be worth while to live through all the wretchedness the scorn of the world could inflict on me, to hail that day at last?”

Regular visitors would be aware that I have been looking into the roots of detective fiction, and the emergence of the female detective in particular. Various studies in this area have identified a number of “prototype” works that do not themselves fit the parameters of the detective novel, but which were important stepping-stones along the evolutionary road.

Catharine Crowe’s 1841 novel, Adventures Of Susan Hopley; or, Circumstantial Evidence (which was published in America as Susan Hopley; or, The Adventures Of A Maid-Servant), is one such work. Not only in its publication date, but much more importantly with respect to its handling of its subject matter, this novel sits almost equidistant between the “Newgate Novels” of the 1820s and the sensation novels of the 1860s, and represents a vital step in the process: the domestication of crime fiction. Adventures Of Susan Hopley is as fully steeped in crime as any of the thief- or highwayman-focused works of earlier in the century, but its sympathies are with the victims of crime, and its perspective stays predominantly with its “good” characters—“good”, because while this novel is technically Victorian, it retains the pragmatic attitude of the Regency, with its morality rendered in shades of grey.

Catharine Crowe herself led a life rendered in shades of grey. Like many female novelists, she wrote to support herself; but unlike many of her fellows, she needed to support herself because she had separated herself from her husband, a situation that seems to have had no adverse effect upon her career. (As I say, “Victorianism” hadn’t kicked in yet.) Crowe started out writing plays and had a modest success, but it was Adventures Of Susan Hopley that established her reputation. She became part of a literary circle that included William Makepeace Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte and Harriet Martineau, with whom she shared views on female education, and followed her breakthrough work with several more well-received novels (one of which, Men And Women; or, Manorial Rights, also shows up on checklists of early detective fiction; watch this space).

From the late 1840s onwards, however, Crowe’s life took a different path, as she became increasingly interested in the paranormal. These subjects came to dominate her writing: she wrote numerous ghost and other horror stories which were later anthologised, and achieved another best-seller in Night-Side Of Nature; or, Ghosts And Ghost-Seers. They also may have been behind a bizarre incident when, in 1854 – at least according to gossip – Crowe was found wandering the streets of Edinburgh naked, apparently convinced that “the spirits” had made her invisible. Crowe herself angrily denied this version of the story (and that she was naked) in a letter to a newspaper, but it was too good to be given up and widely circulated; Charles Dickens, supposedly a friend of Crowe’s, was one of those who propagated it. (A compromise version, that Crowe became delirious during an illness and wandered off, seems to me the most likely explanation.) Consequently, search for information on Catharine Crowe today and almost invariably it is the Edinburgh incident (naked version) rather than anything about her writing that is returned.

So let’s try to re-balance the ledger a little, shall we?

Adventures Of Susan Hopley is a story told in retrospect; told, in fact, after the death of its heroine at a ripe old age. It begins in the voice of Harry Leeson, who knew Susan from the time he was a child, and who employed her as his housekeeper until the time of her death:

Worthy, excellent Susan! methinks I see her now, in her neat, plaited cap, snuff-coloured stuff gown, clean white apron, and spectacles on nose, plying her knitting-needles, whose labours were to result in a comfortable pair of lamb’s-wool stockings for my next winter’s wear, or a warm waistcoat for poor old Jeremy; or in something, be it what it might, that was to contribute to the welfare and benefit of some human being; and I believe, if it had so happened that the whole human race had been miraculously provided to repletion with warm stockings and waistcoats, that Susan, rather than let her fingers be idle and not be doing something for somebody, would have knit jackets for the shorn lambs and blankets for the early calves…

As he reminisces, dwelling fondly on Susan’s honesty and kindness – and her valued companionship, particularly after he was widowed – Harry recalls the moment that it occurred to them not merely to talk over the adventures of their youth, as they were very much in the habit of doing, but to write them down. What follows is their joint narrative of a series of extraordinary events…

Susan Hopley and her younger brother, Andrew, are the only children of a day-labourer on a farm. When the lingering illness of Mrs Hopley brings the family into straitened circumstances, they are relieved by a Mrs Leeson, whose young son, Harry, becomes attached to the Hopley children. Susan herself is taken into Mrs Leeson’s service, while Andrew is placed with a Mr Wentworth, Mrs Leeson’s uncle. After the death of Mrs Leeson, Mr Wentworth vows to provide for Harry, and also takes Susan into his own household.

Mr Wentworth, a wine-merchant, earlier took into his business a distant relative, Mr Gaveston, with whom the young Fanny Wentworth fell in love – not entirely to her father’s satisfaction; though as he is forced to admit, he has nothing concrete to allege against him. Nevertheless, Mr Wentworth takes steps to discourage his daughter’s suitor, informing him blandly that he intends to make Harry Leeson his main heir with respect to the wine-business, and that the bulk of Fanny’s substantial fortune will be vested in trustees and tied up in her children.

Gaveston expresses no dissatisfaction with these arrangements, nor evinces any desire to break his engagement. Shortly afterwards, however, young Harry Leeson begins to be plagued by mysterious accidents… Indeed, twice the boy’s life is in immediate danger, once in a riding incident, once from drowning. In the second instance he is rescued by Andrew Hopley, who risks his own life in the process, and is regarded more warmly than ever by the Wentworths as a consequence.

Andrew’s health having been affected by his watery adventure, Mr Wentworth proposes that the young man accompany himself, Fanny and Harry on a short trip to the seaside. In their absence, two memorable experiences befall Susan. The first is a call at the house by a stranger of distinctive appearance, who demands to know when Mr Wentworth is expected home – and who, confronted by Susan’s clear gaze, manages to put out her candle as they are talking:

“When I opened the door, I saw by the light of the candle I held in my hand, a stout man in a drab coat, with his hat slouched over his eyes, and a red handkerchief round his throat, that covered a good deal of the lower part of his face; so that between the hat and the handkerchief, I saw very little of his features except his nose; but that was very remarkable. It was a good deal raised in the bridge, and very much on one side; and it was easy to see that whatever it had been by nature, its present deformity had been occasioned by a blow or an accident. He did not look like a common man, nor yet exactly like a gentleman; but something between both; or rather like a gentleman that had got a blackguard look by keeping bad company…”

Two nights later, after receiving a letter from Andrew full of oblique animadversions against Mr Gaveston, Susan has a deeply disturbing dream:

“I thought I was sitting in master’s arm-chair by his bed-room fire, just as indeed I was, and that I had just dropped asleep when  heard a voice whisper in my ear, “Look there! who’s that?” Upon that I thought I lifted my head and saw my brother Andrew sitting on the opposite side of the fire in his grave clothes, and with his two dead eyes staring at me with a shocking look of fear and horror—then I thought he raised a hand slowly, and pointing with his thumb over his shoulder, I saw two men standing close behind him; one had a crape over his face, and I could not see who he was; but the other was the man with the crooked nose, who had rung the bell two nights before. Presently they moved forwards, and passing me, went into my master’s dressing-closet, which was behind where I was sitting. Then I fancied that I tried to rouse myself, and shake off my sleep, that I might look after them, but I could not; and when I turned my eyes again on the chair where Andrew had been sitting, instead of him I saw my master there with a large gash in his throat…”

By daylight, Susan shakes off the effects of her unnerving experience, only to find herself confronted by an even mote distressing reality. A carriage arrives, bearing a constable, who demands that Susan, Mr Jeremy, the Wentworths’ butler, and Mrs Jeremy, the housekeeper, accompany him to the town of Maningtree—and that Susan bring with her any letters written to her by Andrew during her absence. Upon their arrival at Maningtree, Susan finds herself being pointed out and stared at. She and the Jeremys are taken into the inn, where they find Mr Gaveston waiting for them. It is he who breaks the shocking news to Jeremy: Mr Wentworth is dead, robbed and murdered, and Andrew Hopley has absconded. Furthermore, a dairymaid called Mabel Lightfoot, who Andrew was courting, or trying to court, is also missing from home. The authorities, putting two and two together and getting five, have concluded that Andrew committed his crime in order to fund his flight with Mabel. However, while it was true that Mabel favoured Andrew above any of the other suitors of her own class, that did not mean she favoured him much: the lovely young girl, though not flighty, was notorious for having ideas above her station; and the idea that she might have eloped with a young footman on fifty ill-gotten pounds is simply incredible to her fellow-servants:

Jeremy was silent. There was something in all this inexplicable to him. He was an uneducated, but a very clear-headed man, and one who, to use his own phrase, was rarely deceived in man or woman. Of Andrew he entertained the highest opinion, founded on observation and experience, having known the lad from his childhood; whilst to Mr Gaveston he had an antipathy so decided, that he used to liken it to the horror some people have of cats; and declare that he always felt an uncomfortable sensation whenever he was near him. Then, as for Mabel’s having gone off with Andrew…which, in short, he could not help suspecting was the insinuation Mr Gaveston was driving at, he was as sceptical about that as the young man’s guilt. He not only believed her incapable of countenancing or taking a part in the crime, but he was satisfied that she cared very little for Andrew; and was altogether actuated by views of a very different nature. He was even aware that Mr Gaveston himself had offered to pay her more attention than was quite consistent with his engagement to Miss Wentworth…

And as the investigation proceeds, another bewildering fact is established: Mr Wentworth’s new will has disappeared. Consequently, his entire fortune descends to his next-of-kin, his daughter, Fanny…

It is Mr Jeremy to whom the unenviable tasks of breaking the news to Susan falls. Stunned beyond measure, Susan holds hard to her belief in her brother’s innocence, insisting vehemently that he will return and clear his name; or that, if he does not, then he, too, must have been murdered, perhaps in defence of the master to whom he was devoted. But in that case, where is his body?

The tragedy of Mr Wentworth’s murder soon takes on another, more personal dimension for Susan: she realises to her grief and shame that the name “Hopley” has become infamous; that unless Andrew can somehow be cleared, she too will forever afterwards carry the stain of his guilt. The grief-stricken Fanny Wentworth, although she has full belief in Susan’s own integrity, tells her reluctantly that she must leave the household. Furthermore, though William Dean, the young man by whom Susan is being courted, declares his willingness to stand by her regardless, she knows that this is not fair to him and breaks off their engagement. The one tiny silver lining in Susan’s misery is that she has a loyal friend in Dobbs, the late Mrs Leeson’s housekeeper, now in service in London, who finds her a position with a young married couple. Bidding farewell to everything she has known, Susan collects together her meagre possessions and sets out to begin a new life…

Adventures Of Susan Hopley is a novel impossible to summarise, and I’m not going to try. (Hallelujah! they cry.) With its lengthy, rambling narrative, its extensive cast of characters, its bewildering plethora of intersecting plotlines and the starring role played by “coincidence” in the unravelling of its various mysteries, one might be tempted to call it “Dickensian”—except that, to all intents and purposes, Catharine Crowe got there first. (Crowe name-checks Dickens at one point, commenting in a footnote that an incident in her work does resemble one in Master Humphrey’s Clock, but was written first; Master Humphrey’s Clock was the serial publication mixing fiction and miscellanea from which Dickens eventually extracted the novels The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge.) Susan Hopley is the key to most – not all – of the novel’s plotlines, mostly due to enforced changes in her employment, and she remains throughout our main focus-figure. However, at various points Susan disappears while other lengthy narratives are interpolated, often in the form of characters telling their own histories, or the histories of others (which, in long-standing novelistic tradition, they couldn’t possibly know in such detail). Although again and again the reader is at a loss to know exactly how a particular narrative fits into the overall tapestry, at length – at length – each of these individual stories plays its part in identifying the murderer of Mr Wentworth and clearing the name of Andrew Hopley.

That said, it is stretching a point too far to call Susan Hopley a “detective”, as one of those studies into early detective fiction does. Though through her intelligence, powers of observation and retentive memory, Susan is instrumental in clearing her brother’s name and bringing the real murderer to justice, she does not actively set out to uncover the truth and vindicate her brother. For one thing, she hasn’t the time, or the resources: she’s a working girl whose first object has to be to earn an honest living. There is some amateur detective work done in this book, however: the active parties are Mr Olliphant, the late Mr Wentworth’s solicitor, and in particular Mr Simpson, originally Wentworth’s head clerk in his wine-business, who has consequently known Walter Gaveston since he was a boy and wouldn’t trust him as far as he could throw him. Separately and together, and with invaluable contributions from Susan, these two men slowly begin to penetrate the fog of mystery surrounding the murder of their employer and friend.

The reader of Adventures Of Susan Hopley, it may be said, is left in far less doubt than the characters in the novel as to the identity of the guilty party – parties – who are of course Gaveston and his friend with the broken nose, briefly identified for us as George Remorden, a well-born young man gone to the dogs. The murder of Mr Wentworth is not the only crime of which they are guilty over the course of this novel, not by a long shot: their careers encompass murder, theft, fraud, blackmail and bigamy, as well as more social sins such as seduction and abandonment. And even more frequently than they commit crimes, the two of them change their identities, hopping from plot-thread to plot-thread in the process and repeatedly showing up again as somebody else. In most cases, there is only that distinctive nose on the face of Mr Remorden to alert the reader to the fact that this has happened; Walter Gaveston himself is a lot harder to spot. Nor are these two the only characters with this chameleon-like tendency. Again and again individuals disappear from one narrative and show up in another, and only the most alert of readers will always be aware that this has happened.

In short—Adventures Of Susan Hopley is a novel that demands the reader pay strict attention at all times. And possibly keep a scorecard.

In spite of the astonishing amount of crime that occurs throughout its pages, this is not a novel without a certain sense of humour, which is heightened by Catharine Crowe’s knack for deft character touches. Here, for example, we find her playing with the “Jew money-lender” stereotype so common in novels of this era (and sadly, for many years afterwards):

Mr Lecky, though still calling himself a Jew, and adhering pretty closely to his own people, as he professed to consider them, had so deteriorated from the type of his ancestors by the frequent alloy of Christian blood they had grafted onto his stock, that he had lost all the distinguishing characteristics of those generally handsome infidels; whilst nature, probably thinking that he could make out no good title to the features of any other sect, had evaded the difficulty by giving him an assortment that would have been unanimously repudiated by every denomination whatsoever…

I’m also fond of this brief visit with an inexperienced opera-goer:

    “Look! he says she shall be mistress of his heart, but that, being a prince, he cannot marry her.”
    “Then I wouldn’t listen to a word more he had to say, if I were her,” said Miss Jones.
    “You think so,” said Rochechouart; “but you wouldn’t be able to help it.”
    “Indeed I should,” replied the young lady.
    “Not if you were in love,” he said tenderly.
    “But I’m not in love,” answered Miss Jones.
    “That alters the case, certainly,” said the duke. “It’s very extraordinary,” thought he; “she’s not the least like any other woman I ever met with;” and he fell into a reverie, forgetting for a time to continue his explanations.
    “He’s gone,” said Miss Jones.
    “Who?” said the duke, starting.
    “The prince,” said she. “Has she dismissed him?”
    “Yes,” replied Rochechouart; “she has sent him away discomfited; and there is the shepherd returned to try his fortune again; but she can’t bring herself to listen to him.”
    “I don’t wonder at it,” returned Miss Jones. “Who would, after being made love to by a prince?”
    “I admire your sentiments,” said Rochechouart, with animation.

Friends of the pragmatic “Miss Jones” know her better as Mabel Lightfoot…

Then of course there’s this piece of inadvertent humour; and while the fate of the young woman in question is sufficiently dismal, it’s not as bad as this passage might seem to suggest:

    “It never rains but it pours, you know,” observed Mr Cripps. “It’s a pity Jemmy arn’t old enough for a husband. I dare say the count would be able to find one for her amongst his great acquaintance.”
    “Oh! the gentleman whom Miss Livy is about to make happy, is a friend of the count’s, is he?” said Mr Glassford.
    “Partiklar,” answered Mr Cripps; “as soon as the wedding’s over, they are all to go together to the count’s castle in Transylvania.”

But while there is plenty of humour in Adventures Of Susan Hopley, intentional and otherwise, there are also some things it takes very seriously indeed. One of the things I find most fascinating about it is how much of its narrative it devotes to the concerns of working-class people, and how sympathetic it is to the difficulties faced by those trying forge a life for themselves at that level. Indeed, I wonder how many 19th century novels have, in a non-didactic context, a servant as their main character? – or spend so much time pondering the fragility of “a good character”? – or show so clearly how servants are at the mercy of the vagaries of their employers? When Andrew Hopley is accused of Mr Wentworth’s murder, Susan finds herself being treated like a leper by the “nice” people:

An elderly lady connected with the family had come down to stay with her; and Susan saw too plainly that the stranger did not regard her with such indulgent eyes as her kind young mistress did. “Good heavens! Fanny,” she heard her say, as she closed the door, “how can you think of countenancing that horrid woman?” whilst she shrunk away as the poor girl passed her, as if she feared to be polluted by the contact of her skirt.

This sort of thing happens so often that Susan develops a terrible sensitivity, expecting insults where none are intended, and sure that the whole world knows of her shame-by-association. In one of our labyrinth of subplots, Susan becomes involved in the affairs of a young wife falsely accused of shoplifting. Discovering a likely alternative suspect but not sure what to do, she carries her theory to Mr Olliphant, whose name she knows as her late employer’s lawyer, who agrees to help but warns it will be difficult to find the evidence they need:

    “Well,” said Mr Olliphant, “I’ll think over the business, and see what’s best to be done; and if I require your assistance, I’ll send you a penny-post letter. What’s your name?”
    “Susan Hopley, sir,” she replied.
    “Hopley, Hopley,” reiterated he. “I’ve heard that name before. Hopley! What is there connected in my mind with the name of Hopley?”
    Poor Susan’s cheeks crimsoned, and if the lawyer had looked in her face at the moment, its expression might have recalled what he was seeking to remember…

But thankfully Susan has not been entirely forsaken. Her fellow-servants, who know her and Andrew as people, as friends, never lose their faith and never let her down. She stays in touch over the years that follow with both Dobbs and Mr Jeremy, and always has someone to turn to for help. The text suggests that this sort of safety-net, with an exchange of care and services amongst people who usually cannot afford to give money, is a common thing at this social level – and rarely found at a higher one.

Adventures Of Susan Hopley makes no bones about the fact that, as a young woman alone in the world, Susan faces some formidable challenges, even with her friends to assist her. A major theme of this novel is what Fanny Burney once called “female difficulties”: the vulnerability of women in a world where men make and break the rules at will. Things are hard enough for Susan, who can at least earn her own living; ironically, they are often even harder for women of a higher class, who lack the practical talents of a good servant. We see all sorts of victimisation over the course of the narrative, including Susan being robbed of everything she possesses the moment she sets foot in London. A young wife finds herself trapped and powerless within a loveless marriage; another has a husband so insanely obsessed with “honour” that tragedy inevitably results. A wealthy girl is married for her money and discarded at the first opportunity; a poor girl is seduced and abandoned, and later finds herself the target of a murderous plot.

The latter plot-thread is perhaps the single most remarkable thing about this novel, with a “fallen woman” becomes an important supporting character, within a narrative that refuses utterly to condemn her. Circumstances conspire to leave a respectable young woman, Julia, homeless and destitute; consequently, she becomes easy prey for the man who has been pursuing her for some time, and who does not hesitate to take full advantage of her desperate situation. Julia bears the man a daughter, and it is made clear from that point that everything she does is with a view to caring for the child, even allowing herself to be palmed off onto another man, a friend of her “keeper”, for whom she cares nothing. (Certain readers may think they recognise these two “gentleman”, who at this point are going by the names of Mr Godfrey and Mr Dyson.)

After Susan is robbed she is taken in for the night by Julia, and given a bed, something to eat, and some money, before being taken to her new place of employment. Though she soon comes to suspect that her rescuer is not a married woman, in spite of her small child, Susan neither judges nor scorns her, still less refuses her assistance. Later, the positions of the two are reversed, and Susan is able to repay her debt of care. Placed at length in a small business, Julia lives an exemplary life; her “sins” are dismissed as circumstantial, not ingrained. Of course young women would rather earn an honest living, argues the text, in effect, and wouldn’t it be nice if the world didn’t make it so very difficult?

Before she reaches her happy ending, however, Julia has two very narrow escapes. One is from the machinations of Walter Gaveston, aka Mr Godfrey, who discovers to his horror that Julia’s main benefactor, and now good friend, is none other than Mr Simpson, Mr Wentworth’s former clerk, and begins to worry that the girl knows rather too much about his movements at the time of Mr Wentworth’s murder… Mr Simpson’s acquaintance with Julia begins when he is one of the two men responsible for saving her life when, abandoned by lover, having pawned everything possible, with no money left and with her child on the verge of starvation, and the two of them turned out onto the streets, Julia takes one of the only two options open to her…

    Matters became daily worse and worse: the child recovered from the maladies, but remained weak and helpless; pining for want of air and exercise, and craving for food which could not be supplied. The love for the infant, which had hitherto given her energy, and enabled her to support this hard struggle, now that she saw that the struggle was in vain, and could no longer be maintained, only added a thousand-fold to her despair.
    At length the dreaded night arrived, and found her houseless, penniless, without a friend to turn to turn to, or a hope to cheer; and with the fearful agony of those cruel words, “Mamma, I’m so hungry,” for ever wringing at her heart.
    For several hours she wandered through the streets, the inhospitable streets, that furnish nothing to the penniless wretch that cannot beg—amongst crowds of busy and incurious strangers, hurrying on their several errands and rudely brushing with their elbows, as they passed, the fainting mother and the starving child;—on she wandered. Ever and anon the broad, grey sheet of the gloomy river, with its sable canopy of fog hung over it, appearing betwixt the divisions of the streets, and reminding her that beneath its dark waters there was a last refuge for the destitute—a bed wherein once laid, no sound can wake them, no cold can shiver them, no hunger tear their entrails, nor cries of starving infants pierce their hearts.
    Who shall condemn her that she sought its rest..?

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.