Posts tagged ‘sensation novel’

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…

 

 

 

02/05/2017

The father of crime

Frances Trollope’s Hargrave came to my attention when I was researching the roots of modern crime and detective fiction and, as it turned out, rightly so; but while that novel was singled out for its criminal content, there are further indications that several of Trollope’s novels contain crime subplots—and, perhaps more importantly in context of this historical study, that her novels were influential upon other writers who would play a part in the development of this branch of fiction. As the 19th century wore on, Trollope’s novels fell out of favour in England, where her Regency outspokenness offended Victorian sensibilities; but that they continued to be embraced in France is evident from the fact that when the next important work in the evolution of the detective story appeared, its author used the pseudonym Sir Françis Trolopp.

Paul Henri Corentin Féval (also known as Paul Féval père) is a pivotal figure in 19th century crime writing: literally pivotal, as he was the first to seize upon and expand the format initiated by Eugène Sue in his Les Mystères de Paris, and also – or so says the dogma; we shall investigate presently – the first to introduce into his sprawling crime stories the figure of the professional detective. Furthermore, some years later, after founding a magazine devoted to crime stories, Féval employed and collaborated with Émile Gaboriau, who later wrote what is arguably the first modern detective series, with his stories featuring police detective Monsieur Lecoq.

Paul Féval was trained as a lawyer, but he soon gave up his legal career to become a writer; quickly gaining a reputation as the author of entertaining historical swashbucklers. In terms of his later career, his most important early work was Le Loup Blanc, published in 1843, the hero of which is a Zorro-esque figure who fights against injustice—and may be the earliest example of the crime-fighter with a double life and a secret identity. (He’s also an albino, because if there’s one thing Paul Féval believed in, it was piling it on.)

Féval’s breakthrough work, however, was 1844’s Les Mystères de Londres which, although a clear imitation of Eugène Sue’s crime drama, dropped the social criticism which was a major aspect of Sue’s work while adding several components to the mixture that would dictate the immediate future of crime writing, particularly in France. In this respect, Féval’s most important decision was to make his hero an anti-hero, the secret head of a criminal gang who is also a political plotter masterminding a scheme to bring about an English Revolution. Féval’s revenge-focused central character is recognised as an influence upon Alexandre Dumas père, whose The Count Of Monte Cristo appeared the following year. Subsequently, French crime writing would come to be dominated by narratives of criminal life, and stories of criminals evading the law, in a manner which clearly invited the reader to side with “the bad guys”. This form of writing climaxed with the creation by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre of the seminal figure of Fantômas.

Unfortunately, however, for those of us interested in the history of crime fiction but who don’t have French as a second language, Paul Féval was not the only writer for whom Eugène Sue’s complex crime drama became a model. In fact, over the next decade magazines and newspapers worldwide would almost drown in serial stories promising to reveal “The Mysteries Of— “…and a poor city you were if somebody didn’t want to unravel your mysteries.

In England, the person to make this form of writing his own was George William Macarthur Reynolds, a critical figure in the development of both crime fiction and horror fiction in England (about whom, we shall be hearing a great deal more in the future). In August 1844, just as Féval’s Les Mystères de Londres was coming to its conclusion in Le Courrier Français, a new weekly eight-page serial (a form of publication which Reynolds dominated, as we shall later see) appeared in England, bearing the title, The Mysteries Of London.

Féval was furious, rightly anticipating that this home-grown serial would supersede his own work. Content with their own story, English readers showed no interest in a foreign version of the same, with the result that, unlike Les Mystères de Paris, Les Mystères de Londres was not translated into English. Three years later, a translation of sorts did appear; and a year after that, another was published in America. The former is a significant abridgement; the latter seems to have been released in loose-leaf, paper-serial form only, never in book form, and no copies are available.

Thus, though Féval’s work has been regularly reissued in France, including as recently as 2015, there is currently no such thing as a full-length, English-language edition of Les Mystères de Londres. Therefore, all we can do is take a look at the 1847 translation by one “R. Stephenson”: a wholly inadequate version of the original, but the best available.

 
 

16/03/2017

Madeline; or, Love, Treachery And Revenge

    Herbert called late in the afternoon. When he entered the room, by invitation, Madeline was supported by some pillows, in a half-reclining position, looking through the window at the setting sun, and the soft rays lingered upon her faded cheek, and cast a delicately beautiful, but melancholy, glow over her face.
    “Are you better?” tenderly asked Herbert.
    “I do not know, Mr. Leslie,” answered Madeline.
    “I was just thinking,” she continued, “that I should not mind to die if I could sink to rest as quietly as yonder sun glides away in its beautiful vermillion shroud. I love to look upon the serene face of nature, and imagine that I can see God smiling with goodness, mercy and love; and that I can see bright angels standing upon the craggy points of the snow-white little clouds that float dreamily in the blue sea: that I can see harps in their hands, and diadems upon their brows. Yes, I love nature. There is no dissimulation in the works of our Father. There is no deceit ‘graven upon Jehovah’s heart.'”
    Herbert’s head dropped upon his bosom. These words found their way to his heart…

 

 

 

 

 

 
I’ll say this for James Summerfield Slaughter: he wastes no time whatsoever letting us know exactly what’s in store for us during a reading of his 1859 novel, Madeline; or, Love, Treachery And Revenge. Allow me to quote in full his preface:

    We will not detain you, reader, with a long Preface. The author indulges the hope, that our first meeting in the relations of reader and writer may not be disagreeable. He will not disguise that it is with feelings of parental solicitude for a kindly greeting from generous hearts, that his little ideal “MADELINE” is sent abroad to distant home circles.
    The present work is no candidate for fame. If the views and sentiments it presents, shall gladden the hearts of a single wayward fellow-being, or whispers consolation to a mourner of earth, or give encouragement to one struggling for the cause of virtue, then the author will have sufficient recompense in knowing that he has contributed something to the noble and good influences that redeem the world from the thraldom of sin, and invest life with beauty, unequaled by those glittering stars in the purple throne of night, and a fragrance more grateful than the bright flowers of earth.

Slaughter is dead on the mark when he calls his novel “no candidate for fame”. Though at this time Americans had a great appetite for sensation novels, they had also had sufficient exposure to enough well-written ones to be able to discriminate; and despite the preening that lurks behind the mock humility of this preface, and the lofty claims made for the novel in its advertisements, I am unable to believe that the first readers of Madeline greeted it with anything other than guffaws, despite its impeccable Southern credentials.

I give the eponymous Madeline star-billing in the quote up above, but the sad truth is that for most of the narrative she is an almost entirely passive figure, sitting alone in her antebellum mansion and twiddling her thumbs while the plot – or “plot” – plays out elsewhere in the country. It is only towards the end, when the machinations of the wicked Herbert reach their climax, that she is given much to do in the story that bears her name.

The book opens with Madeline Lindsey being deserted by her brother, Albinus, who (without a hint of authorial criticism) has decided that exploring in the north-west is a lot more interesting than staying at home to care for his orphaned young sister and run their plantation, even if he gets killed in the process, which he seems fully to expect; and not content with this, he takes with him both his friend Douglas Hardy, who is secretly in love with Madeline but considers himself ineligible, and the plantation’s mainstay, a devoted old black servant called – I kid you not – “Uncle Tom”.

I’m sure you can imagine the tenor of Uncle Tom’s discourse and his general conduct, but just to make sure, here’s a sample:

    It was in one of these musings in his office, late one evening, as he was sitting by his desk arranging his affairs to leave for the North-West, that Uncle Tom entered with a message.
    “Is that you, Uncle Tom?” spoke Douglas kindly, “and what can I do for you? I suppose I must not forget to leave you some keep-sake to repay you, in part, for your kindness to me, and to take a pledge from you, that you will never forget to favour your young mistress.”
    Here Uncle Tom began to draw out his large cotton ‘kerchief, for the tears were already gushing in his eyes.
    “God bless you, massa Douglas! poor old Tom goin’ too. Just to think! he stay home and let massa Binus go way off, and be killed by the Injuns, and no body to nuss him and take care of him! Old Tom ‘tends to go with the darling. He’s de berry pictur ob old Massa.”

So, basically, the hell with Madeline: the three go off without arranging any sort of company or assistance for her. She manages to locate and hire a middle-aged couple, the Carsons, he to act as overseer, she as companion-housekeeper.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its heroine’s isolated situation, we have progressed no further than page 8 before we get the first of the novel’s interpolated narratives, as Madeline asks Aunt Phebe, as she is known, for her life story. We learn that she was a native of Havana, and that while she was rescued from a fire at a theatre, her father was killed, leaving her an orphan—and an heiress. Her rescuer was a Mr Carson, with whom she promptly fell in love. An amusing recapitulation of Madeline’s own situation then occurs, with Phebe left alone at her father’s plantation and hiring a couple to work for her and keep her company. Also like Madeline (as it will later turn out), Phebe became subject to romantic persecution, with a fiery young Spaniard, Don Pedro Montie, whom she had already rejected, renewing his attentions. She rejects him again, with immediate consequences: she finds in her carriage a bullet dyed red, and attached to it a note reading, Beware the Spaniard’s revenge! She then learns that Mr Carson has been arrested:

I…told him that I desired him to find out the facts—the charge, and especially by whom preferred—and to report to me, enjoining him to keep the whole affair profoundly secret. He departed on his mission, and returned in a few hours. The charge, he stated to be conspiracy against the Government, preferred by Pedro Montie!

Duh, we might think. Turns out ol’ Pedro’s messing with the wrong woman, though: learning that Carson has been condemned to the chain-gang, Phebe sends her servant out again to find where he is held at night. Meanwhile, she makes her own preparations:

I drew the Red Bullet from my pocket, and retired to my father’s old desk and got a pistol that I knew to be there. When a girl, my father learned me to shoot with great accuracy. The pistol was loaded. I drew from the draw an ace of hearts—stepped back twenty paces—fired, and drove out the heart! The shot restored my confidence that I had not lost the skill with which I used to shoot. I returned to my room—charged the pistol—put in the Red Bullet

Phebe and her servant devise a scheme to break Carson out, but are surprised in the middle of the enterprise:

    “Ha, ha! Beware of a Spaniard’s revenge!”
    I recognised Pedro Montie by the first gleam of the lantern. In a moment, I replied—
    “Yes! and BEWARE OF THE RED BULLET!”
    My pistol was discharged. I saw the figure reel in the dim, gloomy light and heard a groan. Mr Carson was by my side. We leaped into the carriage and dashed away…

Now both fugitives, Phebe and Carson are forced to take refuge in a haunted castle…leading to an interpolated nattative within an interpolated narrative, and the story of a lovely young noblewoman being forced into a hateful marriage, and the brave but foolhardy page whom she really loved. On her marriage-day the bride chose rather to kill herself; lamentations over her body were startlingly interrupted:

    The sharp report of a pistol, followed by a stream of blood, sent a thrill of terror through the crowd of spectators. The father fell down upon the floor and cried wildly:
    “Retribution! Retribution!
    Don Leon staggered back, fell and expired.
    “Ha, ha! They thought to rob me of my lady love. I see her now!” His eyes was fixed wildly upon the ceiling. “I am coming, Adelaide!” and, as he spoke, he stabbed himself…

By the way, if you don’t come away from a reading of this blog post the same way I came away from a reading of this novel, namely, crying, “Ha, ha!” upon the flimsiest of pretexts, I shall be very disappointed in you.

Of course (as Madeline actually points out), this has nothing to do with anything, so instead Phebe recounts her own terrifying night in the haunted castle, where she encountered a madwoman believing herself to be the Prophetess of Fire and a chained up “man-monster”. As you do. The madwoman turned out be be an old friend of Phebe’s who was seduced and abandoned, and then lost her mind. (But don’t hold your breath waiting for an explanation of the man-monster.)

Phebe and Carson – “Ben” to us now – find an American minister to marry them, and then flee Cuba, leaving all their worldly goods behind and taking with them Phebe’s own faithful servant, “Old Juan”. (Sigh.) Then three of them hop into a boat and set out to sail from Cuba to Florida—but of course get shipwrecked on a desert island on the way. They are rescued, make it eventually to New Orleans, and find work. Old Juan dies without lacerating our sensibilities any more; and then there is only one more incident to recount before Phebe wraps up her life-story:

“The other event was the loss of our child. We were blessed with a child, who gave us more pleasure than all the world besides.
Percy—that was his name—attained the age of twelve, was merry as a song-bird, and as sportive as the lambkin. One morning he went to the beach, drawn I suppose, by idle curiosity or pleasure; but never returned. We have no doubt that he was drowned…”

That, or he ran away upon discovering that his mother was in the habit of describing him to random strangers as “sportive as the lambkin”.

So, we’re about 30% of our way through Madeline now without its heroine doing much more than listening to stories, and since that’s not about to change any time soon, we (like her own brother) now abandon Madeline for the middle of nowhere, and are introduced to a young woman in every way more interesting than she is—even if she does have what I’m inclined to call “an obvious character flaw”:

White Fawn was the daughter of an Indian chief. She was just blooming into woman-hood—an intelligent, beautiful girl. You would hardly believe that she was an Indian. True, her cheeks were slightly bronzed—and very slightly—but her forehead and chin was perfectly fair; her face possessed a peculiar attraction; the contour was bold and well-marked; her eyes first drew your attention; her nose, you would admit, was beautiful; but when you beheld her hair float back from a broad, snowy forehead, you at once felt the magic of the beauty of an Indian girl…

…who within a single page of her introduction is spurning her would-be native husband for the attractions of a wandering white man and having oblique conversations with Chief Radiola about her paternity. Sigh.

Discovering that the spurned Hawk is plotting bloody revenge, White Fawn slips away through the snowy woods to where Albinus Lindsey, Douglas Hardy, Uncle Tom and a third white man to whom we are not immediately introduced are camped. The latter is the object of White Fawn’s passion. Upon receiving White Fawn’s warning, the men break camp and try to slip away, but are ambushed by Hawk and his followers, and White Fawn and her lover carried away. The others follow and manage an ambush of their own. They carry White Fawn back to her father, who immediately goes on the war-path against Hawk. The others agree to fight with him, but only after White Fawn’s still-nameless lover has, with her father’s consent, placed her with a family living at safe distance—and who, Could not readily believe, that she was an Indiansigh.

The conflict begins, and at the last moment Radiola’s men are reinforced:

He did not make his appearance until the silent moment that precedes the dreadful battle-shock. His equipage was very handsome, even dazzling. He wore a dark velvet frock-coat, beautifully and ingeniously inwrought with beads—bright military buttons and a red scarf—yellow buff pants and light, well formed boots that came to the knee; a beautiful belt encircled the waist, and a light, straightsword hung glittering by his side. The form was slender and extremely graceful. A mask concealed the face. He rode a wild, spirited black horse that stamped the earth and danced, while the rein fell carelessly upon the flowing mane…

In the middle of the ongoing war, the unnamed man is decoyed away and imprisoned. At this point the narrative lurches once again, and we are finally informed of his identity—and, oh surprise!—

    He is Percy Carson—the lost child. Wandering down to the beach on a beautiful spring morning, to view the many objects of attraction to be seen along the “sounding shore,” he met with a man who seemed to be selecting shells.
    “What is your name ?” asked the stranger.
    “Percy Carson, sir,” replied the lad, raising his bright eyes to the questioner’s face.
    The man started back as if an apparition was before him, and then recovering his self-possesion from the shock, assumed an air of perfect indifference. Like Lucifer, in the shape of a toad, to whisper in the ear of Eve while she reposed beneath the fragrant bower in the Garden—while the silver stars glittered above Paradise and trembled upon the four rivers, and the angel watchers winged through the mystic light—this man had assumed a shape, a countenance, not his own, and to beguile, like a lurking demon, an innocent child…

It is soon revealed that the Red Bullet didn’t finish its work:

This man is Don Montie. The infernal spirit of revenge has possessed him, as the unclean spirit possessed the man “who had his dwelling among the tombs” in the days of Christ. It has been his accursed incentive ever since his overtures to Phebe Laniz. He has now followed her to America to get another opportunity of glutting his terrible passion—to rob a mother’s heart of its dearest object. All of life’s aims and purposes, were swallowed up in the one thought—Revenge!

Despite what we might fear from all this, Don Pedro’s plan is merely to, Bind the noble-spirited boy with dark chains of dissipation, and then send him back to his doating mother—a captive of the Evil One: a process slow enough to allow for his rescue by another stranger, this one well-intentioned, who turns out to be Percy’s uncle-by-marriage.

We then hear the history of Mr Shelley and Aurelia Laniz, the latter of whom bore the brunt of Don Pedro’s anger after Ben and Phebe escaped. Using his influence, Don Pedro arrived at the Laniz estate to confiscate the family’s property, only to be thoroughly cowed by a lecture from the spirited Aurelia:

“It is false that my brother fled for the commission of a crime. It is meanly false that I have had any complicity in a conspiracy against the government of this Island. We were both, however, born too free, upon the soil of America, not to despise, upon the one hand, the grinding tyranny of the government, and, upon the other hand, the cowardly submission and servility of a large portion of the population; and had I power commensurate with my desire, I would drag down the regal fabric upon the heads of both tyrant and willing submission. There breathes not an American, animated by the genius of the free institutions of his native land, who does not abhor the vile vassalage imposed by the bloody minded mother government, and old Moro Castle with her bristling cannons, may one day yield as readily to American arms as the famed Castle of San Juan de Ulla did.”

Mr Shelley, a spectator of this scene, is swept off his feet by this patriotic eloquence—though he expresses his passion in practical terms, determining by law what part of the estate has been secured to Aurelia, and holding that when the rest is confiscated. The two are married, and for a time blissfully happy, until one day Aurelia dies suddenly—poisoned. The grieving Mr Shelley learns that he has had a narrow escape:

Mr Shelley would have met the same fate, but for the fact that he was perusing the daily journals, as was his custom, while his cup of tea was cooling. For years he had read the daily papers while sitting at the table by a smoking breakfast. To this habit he owed his life, in this instance.

Mr Shelley and Percy throw in their lots together and set off to make a new life for themselves.

(“What!?” I said out loud at this point. “Didn’t they even try to find his parents!?”—a question not answered for some considerable time, and as an obvious afterthought: “Oh, yeah! We, uh, we looked for them but they weren’t there. Sure, that’s what happened…”)

Anyway, somewhat surprisingly, Percy becomes an actor—and, At the age of twenty, he became what is called in theatrical parlance, “a star.”

But not everyone is a fan, and one night Percy has his performance interrupted by hissing, issuing from none other than Don Pedro—who seems to have moderated somewhat his ideas on “revenge”.

Percy, like his Aunt Aurelia, is undaunted:

“I can brook insults from so great a villain as Don Montie. It is a serpentine hiss, and I am willing that he shall roll in the slime and eat the dust of his own degradation.”

Percy goes on to denounce Don Pedro’s villainy and cowardice, until, with all eyes in the theatre upon him, Don Pedro cannot do other than respond with a challenge. To his dismay, Percy leaps at this:

    “I trust this large and respectable audience will remain perfectly quiet. I need not affirm that I have not been the cause of this uninteresting quarrel, but I wish you to witness its end. I accept your challenge,” he said, as he fixed his eyes fiercely upon Don Montie, “which was thrown out with the vain expectation that the time would be set in the future; but I prefer this moment—upon this stage, the place—repeaters, the weapons—across a pocket-handkerchief, the distance—we will need no seconds.”
    “Rash youth!” exclaimed one.
    “He’s a brave one!” answered the second.
    “He’ll do to let alone,” observed the third.
    In a moment suggestions ceased, and every one awaited, with breathless interest, to see the result.
    Don Montie sank down upon his seat, turning pale, and great drops of perspiration gathering upon his forehead. He essayed not to utter a word.
    “Coward! Coward!” ran through the audience.
    Percy bowed gracefully to the crowd, and retired under a shower of boquets…

The narrative then wrenches again, and we catch up with Don Pedro some months later. Another interpolated narrative, this one the life-story of Don Pedro and how he came to be eaten up by—Revenge!—a story peppered with vague references to various crimes committed in his past, some of which sound familiar to us. However, the centrepiece of the tale is Don Pedro’s repeated, La Belle Dame Sans Merci encounters with a strange woman (who we sort-of recognise as the Prophetess of Fire), who again and again ambushed him while he was riding, leaping up behind his saddle and forcing him to ride wildly by holding a knife to his throat.

And in the very midst of Don Pedro’s reflections, the woman appears to him again—this time forcing him into the burial vault of an old and noble Spanish family:

    The view was at once awful—they were in a charnal-house—a Golgotha. Human bones lay profusely about, while in the centre there was a heap of bones some two or three feet high.
    “Now, sir,” spoke the woman, as they came to the vault, “I have brought you hither to show you the place where your bones will soon be piled. No grave yard shall be your resting place, but here your body shall remain until the day of final accounts. Do you know
me?”
    Don Montie shook his head solemnly in reply to the interrogation.
    “Ah! you feign forgetfulness of one whom you injured—victimised—robbed of her chastity,” continued the woman, and there was a fearful emphasis in her expression… “You have lived only to persecute—to blast the happiness of others—to lurk about and accomplish mischief—to war upon women and children! You are a murderer—a forger—and—and—”
    The woman paused for a moment, and laughed frantically, and then continued—
    “A seducer! You turned me loose upon the world, covered with shame and scorn and misery; blasted—robbed of hope—debarred from virtuous society—with no claim for sympathy, while you mingled in the festive throng, and was admitted in society—and all the while you laughed at the credulity of woman. You shall now realise that a woman, weak though she may be, is yet strong enough and capable of avenging herself…”

And so Don Pedro meets an appropriately gruesome end.

The narrative (some 50% passed) then jumps back to—gasp!—the story of Madeline Lindsey. Remember her? Her author finally did:

This scene is going on at Woodland. Madeline and Douglas Hardy have been engaged over twelve months. He has been in the North-west, with his friends, nearly two years.

Thanks for sharing; this is the first we’ve heard about it.

But all is not well between Madeline and the man who prefers wandering around pointlessly in the snow to spending time with her. His letters complain (ironically enough) of her coldness, and demand that they break their engagement. Madeline is angry and indignant, as well as miserable and confused: she endures a state of suffering relieved only by the friendship of a young man called Herbert Leslie, who likes to read poetry with her.

That old ploy.

It is soon revealed to us that between desire for Madeline and desire for her property and fortune, Herbert has launched upon an elaborate scheme to break up her relationship (such as it is) with Douglas, intercepting their letters and getting a useful forger-friend to substitute some of his own composition. The forger, Tom Martin, is (fittingly enough) getting cold feet, but Herbert scoffs at his scruples:

“I will undeceive her when I have succeeded, and the joke has gone far enough for all practical purposes. By that time I will have established my claims as a good husband, and we will laugh it all over as a clever bit of pleasantry. It will no doubt divert her, that you could so successfully counterfeit Douglas Hardy’s handwriting.”

Madeline is deceived by Herbert’s insinuating demeanour; Aunt Phebe is glad of anything that can cheer her up these days; but Ben Carson has suspicions that receive support from an anonymous letter denouncing Herbert as “a monster” and warning of a plot against Madeline. Until now Ben has not been informed of the situation with Douglas, but when an anguished Madeline reveals it he puts two and two together and decides that Herbert has somehow had a hand in things. Madeline rejects this idea, but the suggestion that she has a false friend as well as a false lover is too much for her, and her health begins to fail. It is not long before Herbert has reason to fear he has seriously overreached himself…

In a moment of overwhelming guilt, Herbert confesses. The revelation is a blow that Madeline cannot withstand in her already enfeebled condition. Soon the household is gathered about what they expect to be her death-bed…

…and the narrative jumps back to the North-West, where in the middle of bemoaning Madeline’s conduct towards him, Douglas receives a letter alerting him to the truth, and sets out at once for Woodland…

…and the narrative abandons both of them to follow the adventures of Albinus Lindsey, who we shall give the benefit of the doubt for the moment and assume doesn’t know about his sister’s situation, since the text never bothers to verify that point. He encounters an old friend of the family and accepts an invitation to his home, Clifton Hill.

Mr Wolsey, a year earlier, married a widow with four children; he has since learned not only to resent his step-children, but to be actively cruel to them: among other things, using their money, of which he is trustee, for his own children’s advantage:

Mr Wolsey had cherished a secret prejudice against the Leighton orphans, and all because they elicited more attention from the public than his own children. How revolting, that a man should have prejudice against an innocent, fatherless child! How terrible must be the curse that awaits such a being. Alone in the world, untaught in the great business of life, with no great throbbing heart of sympathy to lean upon when fever racks the brain and gives hot eye-balls! Vile man! to feel no kindly impulse for the orphan in your charge!

(Unexpectedly, and one of the few genuinely interesting things in this silly novel, the narrative will later contend that Mrs Wolsey’s first duty was to her children, and that she should have left her husband when she saw his attitude towards them.)

Almost immediately, Wolsey begins making plans for Albinus and his daughter, Louise. Albinus, however, has rediscovered a childhood friend in the youngest of the Leightons (although given what must be the age gap between them, the subsequent description of how they used to “romp together in the woods” has an uncomfortable edge; however—):

Nannie was a simple child of nature. Her heart knew no guile. She never knew the artfulness of society—the cunning and address of the world, but her heart and hands were as pure as the riven snow of the mountains. Her face was full and fair, and tinged with the healthful life-current that bounded through vein and artery; her wavy, tressy hair was as dark as a raven’s; her lips soft and delicate, and her form was perfect and graceful. She deserved to be called “Pretty Nannie.” She was known far away for her beauty, gentleness and intelligence. Her life was as quiet and even as the little brook that flows along its smooth channel, and murmurs its pleasing, rippling song, and kisses the flowers that bow their delicate faces to the stream for a grateful drop. But in the hidden depths of her heart were glorious sentiments—worthy, noble, pure, holy sentiments!

Sorry—I’m with Mr Wolsey on this one.

Albinus and Nannie go walking together and, when Albinus expresses admiration of a “grand peak” in the district, Nannie is moved to offer an interpolated narrative—that of “The Man Of The Rock”, a wanderer who, in his youth, fell in love with the same girl as his brother, and killed him in a jealous rage. After many years of bitter repentance, the man fell in love with a pretty Italian flower-seller (as you do), and finally overcame both her mother’s doubts and his own feeling that he deserved no happiness in life, and married her. The two had a daughter, but Gabriella died. After placing his child—somewhere—the man returned to the mountains where he and his wife had been happy, and jumped off a cliff…

The narrative then lurches back to Woodland—where Douglas Hardy arrives in time only to hold Madeline’s dead body in his arms…and promptly loses his mind. He is locked up for his own safety while her burial is conducted, but no sooner has he been freed than he undertakes a little body-snatching…

Just as well, too:

    There was the verification—a figure before them, in burial habiliments sitting up and possessed of life.
    “This is a strange world!” began the ghostly figure. “How strange!”
    “It’s Madeline Lindsey!” exclaimed several…
    The dead’s alive! She had been lowered into the silent grave as dead, was resurrected to life—for she moves and breathes and speaks…

It turns out that Herbert Leslie drugged Madeline with something that brought on the appearance of death, that Tom Martin warned everyone frantically that she wasn’t dead, only drugged, and that the doctors and undertakers went ahead anyway, in spite of everyone agreeing that “she did not look dead”, and a corpse that “retained something of a perspiration, and the colour of life”—yike!

Douglas (whose resurrection-work goes politely unremarked) hunts down Herbert and is about to murder him when a mysterious old man intervenes, arguing that he should allow Herbert to be “blasted by God’s vengeance” instead.

As for our undead heroine—

One month from the occurrences just narrated, she was completely restored to her wonted vivacity of feeling and vigorous, blooming health; so entirely that Douglas Hardy again took his leave of Woodland to return to the North-West…

To be fair, this time there’s some excuse for him: he doesn’t know what has happened to either Albinus or Percy. Surprisingly, the narrative stays with Madeline, who gets lost while out riding. With a violent storm coming, she finds herself in a steep, rocky ravine, and makes her way into a winding, secret cave—which turns out to be a bandit’s hideout. While she (and her horse) are hiding in a narrow tunnel, she overhears two of the bandits discussing their latest recruit—none other than Herbert Leslie. She learns to her horror of another plot against herself, when the bandits express doubts about “warring on women”, and hears to her confusion a reference to her father:

“I think—I know that my father died at sea, when I was a child. So I have always heard, and had it not been true, he would certainly have appeared in the interim of fifteen years…”

Oh, certainly! Madeline tries to convince herself that some other girl, lucky enough to have a father, is the target of the plot. She also starts looking for an escape route from the cave, carefully eluding the bandits as she (and her horse) try to find another way out. She glimpses a distant ray of light—hears strange music—and eventually finds herself confronted by a woman who, having been seduced and abandoned by one of the bandits, chose to stay in the cave rather than face the world again. The miserable woman tells Madeline that there are other ways out, but she doesn’t know where they are; so Madeline (and her horse) press on, only to be confronted by—a bear! Madeline has a pistol with her, and arms herself, but before she can take action—her horse springs into action!

You wondered why her horse was being dragged through all this, didn’t you??

Madeline and Snow Ball between them manage to overcome the bear, but their troubles are hardly over:

    “Ha! we have met!” exclaimed a voice near.
    Madeline started up with affright and turned to see who it was that spoke. It was Herbert Leslie!

Snow Ball again intervenes, and this time, sadly, gets a bullet in the chest for her pains. But before Herbert can carry out his nefarious intentions towards Madeline, he gets a bullet in his chest:

    Madeline raised her head to discover from whence her deliverance came. Upon the bank above, just on the verge of the channel stood an old man with a rifle in his hand, apparently as collected as if nothing had occurred.
    “I will draw you up in a basket,” spoke the man above.

Herbert dies, but not before confessing that (i) he already has a wife, and (ii) he was the one who seduced the woman in the cave. The old man, meanwhile, as he helps Madeline out, admits that he is the one who intervened to save Herbert from Douglas, but won’t say any more.

We then lurch back to Douglas, who is talking to a no-longer-captive Percy. The two men exchange stories, the latter explaining that he owes both his own preservation and the conclusion of the conflict to the mysterious masked warrior—and that, oh gosh, no-one’s seen or heard anything of White Fawn since Percy left her with his friends. Funny, that.

Percy does find her again, though, with Radiola, who gives his consent to their marriage; which is to happen at Woodland due to the insistence of Albinus—last seen on a mountain with Pretty Nannie. Douglas now thinks to mention that there are two people called “Carson” at Woodland, though Percy doesn’t think they can be anything to do with him, despite the fact that the woman exactly matches the description of his mother and her name is “Phebe”.

We then catch up with Albinus—or rather Nannie, on whose behalf a couple of cousins have intervened, taking her away from Wolsey on a visit, and then facilitating her elopement. She, White Fawn and the three young men set out together:

Merrily the party conversed—wit and humour passed around. As they were thus rattling away, they were suddenly aroused by a band of highwaymen.

It happens, right? Percy is slightly injured in the ensuing fight, and White Fawn is abducted. Albinus and Nannie continue the journey to Woodland, while Percy and Douglas set out in pursuit; falling in with a small band of trappers, who join with them in their rescue attempt.

White Fawn is carried to the isolated villa of a Spaniard called Gonzoles, for no apparent reason (except that our author is clearly struggling to meet his word count; this was written for serialisation, remember?). We roll our eyes through a lot of highwayman blather, Percy demands White Fawn of Gonzoles, and he hands her over.

Percy, White Fawn and Douglas catch up with Albinus and Nannie at St Louis, and they all set out again together. They make another friend upon the way, one LeRoy Pennance, an elderly man travelling south, and invite him to join them at Woodland. There, Percy and the Carsons rediscover each other; while two more elderly men turn up from nowhere and are invited to stay for no reason.

We are now two pages from the end of Madeline, and from here I think I’ll let the text speak for itself:

*******************

    “LeRoy Pennance!?” exclaimed one of the strangers.
    “Ay! why?” was the answer.
    “And who is this ?” inquired the first speaker, evincing great agitation.
    “I cannot tell,” answered Mr Pennance—“who are you?”
    “Hampton Lindsey,” he answered.
    “What! Hampton Lindsey?” exclaimed the other.
    “Hampton Lindsey!” exclaimed the third stranger.

*******************

    “My Father !” exclaimed Madeline, and she rushed into the arms of Lindsey. He sustained her for some minutes, and then, looking earnestly into her face, said:
    “No, Madeline! I am not your father; but he is here;” and the speaker turned and pointed to Mr. Pennance. “Here is your father. Your name is not Lindsey, as you have supposed, but Pennance!”

*******************

    “Who was my mother?” enquired Madeline.

*******************

    “Hampton, do you not know me?”
    “Jerrald! thank God, the reunion is perfect.”
    “Forgive me, Hampton !”
    “In the name of God, I do.”
    The brothers embraced.
    “De Lord knows! here’s massa Jerrald—after jumping off ob de rock at Clifton—”
    “Clifton Height!”” exclaimed Nannie.
    “Clifton Height!” joined White Fawn and Albinus Lindsey.
    “How’s this?” asked Douglas Hardy.
    “Wonders will never cease,” remarked Percy Carson.
    “What of my child?” asked Jerrald Lindsey of Uncle Tom.    
    “Here she is !” replied the old servant gathering White Fawn in his arms. “Dis is de child, Gabriella,” and he bore her to her real father, Jerrald Lindsey.

*******************

    “And what of—of—what of—Mary?” asked Jerrald of his brother.
    “Ah! that is a painful question,” answered Hampton, “but this is the proper time to answer it,” and as he spoke he regarded LeRoy Pennance earnestly. “She became the wife of my friend, Pennance, and he was an affectionate, kind, indulgent husband, and their union was blessed with the birth of Madeline—but distrusting and jealous by nature, she doubted her trust-worthy husband. She left him, fled to disgrace and infamy. Madeline was left to my charge. By her father’s request she was to pass as my daughter until she became old enough to know and consider properly the facts connected with her unfortunate mother. But let us pass them now, since Mary has long since paid the great debt of nature which, sooner or later, all of us must discharge.”

*******************

    The evening following, witnessed the marriage of the three happy couples.
    Our story is finished.

*******************

And so bewildering is this rush of revelations, enough to sustain any self-respecting soap opera through about five seasons, that we might well think so; but a moment’s reflection informs us that:

(1) We don’t know who the chained-up man-monster was;
(2) We don’t know what happened to Mr Shelley;
(3) We don’t know how Percy came to be wandering around in the north-west;
(4) We have no fricking idea how Gabriella Lindsey became White Fawn, daughter of Chief Radiola;
(5) We never get confirmation that White Fawn and the Masked Warrior are one and the same;
(6) We never find out which of the three elderly men was the person who intervened to stop Douglas killing Herbert, subsequently killed Herbert himself, and rescued Madeline; or if it was someone else altogether.

And yet we get to sit through three pages of highwayman blather

.

17/11/2016

Lady Lisle (Part 3)

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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14/11/2016

Lady Lisle (Part 2)

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

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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…]

12/07/2015

The Beauty Of The British Alps

grimstone1bHer mother, who on her marriage had embraced the Protestant faith (another bar to her reconciliation with her family, all bigots in the faith she had apostatised) had reared Adela, in those doctrines, and in her system of morality had endeavoured to inculcate the strictest obedience to parental authority, and the most refined delicacy, as the surest safeguards of female virtue. But in her plan of education Mrs Belmont had committed one great error, she had cultivated Adela’s feelings and imagination to a dangerous height. The effort should rather have been to strengthen her judgement, than to refine her fancy; to subdue and regulate, rather than to heighten her native sensibility; to inculcate that common sense which brings the virtues into daily practice, instead of indulging an enthusiasm which wasted itself on fanciful theories of poetical philosophy—a philosophy which like the wings of Icarus, fails us at the moment we have most need of it, and like them it raises us to a temporary elevation only to make our fall greater and more fatal…

 

 

 

It is not every novel that opens with an apology – not the usual female self-deprecation that we’re used to, about how the novel was written in mere moments snatched away from the author’s domestic duties, which of course always came first – but a full-blown apology for the work that follows. Mary Leman Grimstone’s The Beauty Of The British Alps; or, Love At First Sight is one such novel:

    If apology ever was necessary for any work, it must be to the present, since from circumstances unnecessary to detail, the first hasty and unfinished draught was taken from me, without its having received the benefit of a single revision. Family events intervening, some considerable time elapsed before I resumed my task, and when I did I had not a single page of the manuscript or a memorandum to refer to. Compelled both by honour and circumstances to complete my task, I took the bold alternative of trusting entirely to memory, cheered by the prospect of having the proof sheets pass through my hands, and of thus being enabled to make some corrections. But this unfortunate performance was pre-destined to go forth with all its faults upon its head, my going abroad precluding any possibility of my devoting any further attention to its pages.
    Under these circumstances, as well as its being a first essay, I hope to win some indulgence from my readers, and trust that they will not suffer the errors of the present, to prejudice the future efforts of the same pen.

After all that, the obvious question is, of course—does the novel need this much excusing? Well—yes and no.

The opening section of The Beauty Of The British Alps is very bad indeed; so much so that before I was more than a few pages in I was gleefully entertaining the prospect of a novel of hilarious emotional excess. Here is the sequence that gives this work its subtitle:

    As he spoke he glanced at Adela—their eyes met, and hers were immediately cast down. Though she had taken no part in the conversation since their return to the room, she had not been an abstracted or inattentive observer. The stranger was young, handsome, and elegant; and viewed through the medium of grateful interest, every charm he possessed was heightened in her eyes. Never had she beheld a being who approached so near perfection; no, not even in the efforts of the pencil, or the florid descriptions of the poet. His figure was tall and majestic, his air graceful and distinguished, his manner, like his voice, soft, gentle, and insinuating; his darkly fringed eyes were full of fire and softness, his finely formed head was adorned with curling hair that might have rivalled the raven’s wing, as his teeth might have done the swan’s, and the hand, (white as the cambric handkerchief it held,) attested not less by its form and colour than by the manner in which it was used, the rank to which he belonged.
    But while Adela, almost unconsciously to herself, had been imbibing the charms of his polished manner, and canvassing the graces of his person, he had not been less struck with her surpassing loveliness. Traces of Italian lineage were visible in her delicate and expressive features, in her large and melting eyes of the darkest hazel; but the pure tints of her complexion shewed her claim to a British origin also. Her form was an exquisite combination of all that is most beautiful in the fairest forms of either clime; her bright auburn hair fell in glossy and natural ringlets, on a neck fair as polished ivory, while the elegant simplicity of her dress indicated the taste and delicacy of her mind…

But (I am almost sorry to say) this opening is not indicative of the novel as a whole which becomes less overwrought in manner, and acquires a greater substance as it goes along.

In fact, I have a theory about this novel: I think that Mary Leman Grimstone started it when she was quite young, wrote about a quarter of it, then shoved the manuscript in a drawer and forgot about it for several years. Perhaps she turned back to it years later, when in search of something to occupy her thoughts in the wake of her husband’s death, or during her own subsequent illness. Certainly she must have intended to revise those opening chapters, but – presumably because of her trip to Australia, which happened the same year the novel was published – never got the chance. Consequently, what turns out in the long run to be a fairly grounded work of fiction (albeit one that takes an interesting side-trip into the territory of the post-Gothic-cum-proto-sensation novel) opens in a tone of embarrassingly immature emotionalism.

The Beauty Of The British Alps opens in an isolated corner of Wales, where our heroine, sixteen-year-old Adela Belmont, lives a simple domestic existence with her widowed mother. Adela is returning home from a visit to one of her few other acquaintances, Mrs Annesley, the widow of a clergyman, when the horse drawing her carriage bolts. She is rescued by a stranger, who injures his arm in the process. When this is recognised, Mrs Belmont insists upon him resting in their cottage until the doctor has a chance to examine him. Reassured over the injury, Mrs Belmost presses the young man to stay a day or two, until he is more recovered. He introduces himself as Seeton Auber, the eldest of Captain Auber’s three children; he is, in turn, introduced to Adela—and, well, love at first sight…

Recently, the Belmonts’ narrow social circle has been enlarged by the arrival of a new family in the neighbourhood, the Aubers; and in spite of their temperamental differences, Adela has formed a warm friendship with Caroline, the only daughter. When a message is sent to them about Seeton’s accident, Caroline and her father come to see him—and take in the situation with Adela at a glance. For Caroline it is an opportunity for much arch teasing, for Captain Auber an intolerable provocation.

Captain Auber, a proud, ill-tempered man, has retreated with his family to the country because of their straitened finances; he is unable to bear the fact that they are no longer able to maintain that position in society to which he feels they are entitled. The Captain’s main interest in life – not to say obsession – is arranging marriages for his three children that will not merely re-establish but aggrandise the family.

The disparate reactions of the three Auber children to their father’s manoeuvring is one of this novel’s interesting touches. Frederic, the younger son, who is in the Guards, and who has recently rejected a wealthy but distasteful marriage, simply removes himself from his father’s vicinity whenever the pressure becomes too much to bear. Caroline, being a girl, has no such means of escape, and must sit still and quiet beneath her father’s anger and bullying; when the novel opens, she is in deep disgrace for having refused a more-than-advantageous proposal of marriage.

But it is Seeton who provides the biggest surprise—because at the time he meets Adela Belmont and falls hopelessly in love with her, he has already given in to his father’s persuasions and other circumstantial pressures, and is engaged to be married…

The match is everything that Captain Auber has been scheming for: Seeton is engaged to Sophia Egremont, the daughter of the Earl of Egremont. Sophia is in love with Seeton (or at least with his face), and although he feels nothing warmer than liking towards her, until he met Adela he considered this an adequate basis for marriage. But whatever the change in his feelings and opinions, Seeton knows that he is trapped: as a man of honour, he cannot break his engagement; while Sophia is the kind of girl who, if she realised that her fiancée wished to be released, would only cling to him all the more, to punish him. And it is not difficult to imagine how Captain Auber would react if asked to welcome into the family the poor, obscure daughter of nobody in particular, in place of an aristocratic heiress.

To separate Seeton and Adela is Captain’s Auber’s immediate ambition—but this is not as easy as he would like since, before becoming aware of the situation, he gave permission for Caroline to invite Adela to travel with the family to London, to where they will be returning for the wedding of Emilia Auber to Lord Milsom, the son and heir of the Earl Of Errol—a match so splendid that Captain Auber can hardly stand it; particularly since the elder daughter of his brother, Sir Hubert Auber, is already married to a wealthy French marquis:

“Ah! my lord,” cried the Captain in a tone that expressed how truly he felt what he said, “he has a happiness that falls to few parents. His children make their own elections, and yet they are as wise and prudent, as if they acted under the guidance of age and experience. It is thus that fortune falls unsought into the lap of some! Sir Hubert, my lord, gives himself not one iota of trouble! To promote the interests of my children has been the science of my life; and, except in one happy instance,” (and he bowed to Lord Egremont as he pointed to Seeton,) “I have found it one of difficulty, disappointment, and perplexity.”

Meanwhile, with Adela having joined the Auber party, the Captain goes out of his way to make sure she knows that Seeton is off-limits:

    “I know the value, my sweet Adela,” resumed the Captain, “of wealth and distinction, and therefore labour to attain it for my children. Here is Seeton,” he continued in the easy tone of friendly confidence,” in marrying Miss Egremont, steps into the possession of a magnificent fortune, and large expectations, it will ally him to some of the first families in the kingdom, whose interest will obtain him a seat in parliament, and lay open the way to the highest honours of the state.”
    The Captain paused, but Adela made no reply; this was information that penetrated her heart like a dagger…

What we have here, then, is a situation in which, as much for their mutual peace of mind as in response to the dictates of honour, Seeton Auber and Adela Belmont should be going out of their way to avoid each other—preferably with Seeton devoting himself to Sophia Egremont,  and Adela separating herself from the Aubers by returning to her mother. Instead they do the opposite: Adela ignores the promptings of her conscience and stays right where she is; while Seeton barely attempts to disguise his passion for Adela, neglecting Sophia in the process, who is not slow in putting a correct interpretation upon his behaviour. Furthermore, Seeton becomes furiously jealous of every other man who shows an interest in Adela—a long list, which includes his own brother, Frederic: the two are swiftly at loggerheads.

At this point in the narrative of The Beauty Of The British Alps, I was very much put in mind of Susannah Gunning’s Barford Abbey, in which the hero, likewise unable to marry the heroine (who is likewise beautiful, but poor and obscure), nevertheless courts her until she falls in love with him, and goes berserk if any other man approaches her. The difference – a very welcome one – is that while the behaviour of Gunning’s Lord Darcey passes without comment, Mary Leman Grimstone is stringently critical of both Adela and Seeton.

And this is what makes this novel both worthwhile and very interesting: we are light-years away from the usual boring pictures of perfection that populate the average sentimental novel; still further from those characters whose authors seem to think they are perfect, no matter how badly they behave. Instead, Grimstone offers a hero and heroine who are both seriously – dangerously – flawed, and who listen to the promptings of sophistry, instead of doing what they know very well to be the right thing. Plenty of tacit criticisms of Seeton’s conduct are scattered through the narrative, but it is Adela’s thought processes that are dissected in detail; or rather (since the problem is that she is not thinking, but only feeling), how she justifies to herself letting her heart rule her head.

The  narrative puts the blame for Adela’s faults squarely on her mother, who has given her the wrong sort of education (as per the quotation up above); but this does not let Adela off the hook, who is doing wrong knowingly—under the standard excuse of “only hurting herself”:

Throwing aside the restraints of her evening dress, she assumed a wrapping gown, and with her hair still flowing about her shoulders, paced up and down the apartment. Where was the calm that had once marked her evening devotions? she did not pray, alas she could not pray! for a sense of guilt and shame forbade her raising her eyes in an appeal to heaven. She felt with dreadful certainty that her heart was wholly devoted to one, whom she imagined was as wholly devoted to another, and to root the fatal prepossession was alike due her honour and her peace. But Adela’s virtue had its basis in feeling, not in principle: the latter would have taught her a vigorous effort of self-discipline, and an adoption of those decisive measures by which the passion might ultimately (though at the expense of a painful struggle) have been eradicated. She chose rather to embrace the apparently easier alternative of hiding rather than chasing her love…

And after indulging this choice for a time:

The love that animated Adela’s bosom was such as warmed the breast of Lara’s page. Had it been practicable she would have sought refuge in disguise, endured privation, pain, nay even degradation, to have traced his steps, to have breathed where he breathed, to have gazed on him, to have listened to him. Formed to feel with intensity, the secrecy with which she had cherished the passion, had increased its strength and its devotedness. All that was bright and interesting in life besides was tame, was valueless in comparison. She had no pleasures, no pains, no hopes, no fears, but as they bore reference to him. She had no thought unmixed with some idea of him…

Certain passages in The Beauty Of The British Alps, such as this one, and particularly in conjunction with that header quote, with its allusions “a fatal fall”, suggest that we’re headed into the realm of tragedy in this novel. However, whether that was or was not what Grimstone intended when she started writing, the completed novel shies away from the possibility it seems to be working towards, with interjections about how Adela would never do anything really – that is, definitively, actively – wrong. Though these extremes are not smoothly blended, Grimstone uses the reassurances of Adela’s ultimate virtue as a framework for a cautionary tale about female education and proper principles.

There is one “perfect” character in The Beauty Of The British Alps, and it is intriguing that she plays a comparatively minor role in the drama being enacted by her less immaculate companions. This is Emilia Auber, later Lady Milsom, who in the course of the narrative goes from ideal daughter to ideal wife, and whose sweet temper, thoughtfulness and unfailing devotion to duty make her a tacit measure of what the novel’s other young women are not.

Another nice touch here is the recognition that friendship, particularly for young women, who have little to no control over what company they find themselves in, is as much a matter of simple proximity as of compatibility. At the beginning of The Beauty Of The British Alps, Adela is thrilled to have a companion her own age and sex in Caroline Auber; but as the narrative progresses it becomes clear that the two have little else in common. Though circumstances keep the girls together (and compel Caroline to entrust Adela with a huge secret, as we shall see), Adela turns with undisguised relief to the gentle, considerate Emilia and begins to draw away from the unpredictable Caroline:

To Caroline however she still remained attached. She was the sister of Seeton, and had many noble traits of character; but her temper was hasty and capricious, and her humour frequently virulent and sarcastic: Adela feared her, and felt hers the last bosom in which she could repose confidence, or seek for sympathy.

Ironically enough, this scenario plays out the other way around: it is Caroline who is driven to repose confidence in Adela, and to seek her sympathy…

While its distinctly imperfect hero and heroine are interesting in their unexpectedness, to my way of thinking it is Caroline Auber who is this novel’s most arresting character. She is introduced in a way that does not, perhaps, prepare the reader to expect much from her:

Caroline left to herself sunk into a melancholy , which was at all times observed to oppress her in spite of the habitual sprightliness of her nature. Her countenance, though beautiful, had an expression of hauteur which these occasional fits of spleen tended to increase, they added also to the loftiness of a mien naturally too prone to wear the arrogance of rank… The world had had an unbenign influence on the character of Miss Auber, and though unable wholly to corrupt, had vitiated its original excellence.

But Caroline has a secret, one responsible for the melancholy she cannot always hide: she is in love with a man for whom the term “ineligible” is grossly inadequate.

This subplot is both too long and too complicated to get into in any detail: let us just say in summary that the young man who calls himself simply “Clarence” (Mr Clarence to strangers) is an orphan of undetermined origin, unaware of who his parents were or what name he might be entitled to; though someone has paid for him to have a gentleman’s education. From this unpromising background he has gone on to become a deserter from the (French) army, and possibly a murderer (it was self-defence, but without witnesses). On the run and with nowhere to go, Clarence is literally on the verge of starvation when he meets Caroline, whose impulsive generosity probably saves his life. Now in England, in hiding, Clarence is trying to scrape an income as an artist, but barely keeping body and soul together.

Though nowhere near the obsessive snob that her father is, Caroline has been accustomed to a life of privilege, and is fully aware of the comfort and advantages that comes with social prominence. Her love for Clarence, deep and genuine as it is, threatens to separate her from everything she has ever known, and means a future uncertain at best. She hesitates—understandably she hesitates—in recognition of the fact that should she throw in her lot with Clarence, it almost certainly means a life of struggle, perhaps real poverty; even assuming that Clarence’s past doesn’t catch up with him.

Caroline is finally driven to confide all this to Adela, persuading her to be her secret almoner by seeking out Clarence in London and commissioning him to paint her miniature, which she, Caroline, will pay for. Adela allows herself to be talked into this and, once she has met Clarence, becomes fully sympathetic to the lovers’ situation. However, Adela’s movements attract more notice than she realises, and her visits to Clarence’s rooms soon give rise to ugly gossip in some quarters, and rampant jealousy in others.

During a country-house visit, Caroline almost suffers a dangerous fall from a cliff-edge path (the young man with her does fall, and is seriously injured). The always lurking Clarence saves her life at great risk to his own, which naturally earns him a foot in the door where he most wants it; though the sense that he is being accepted under false colours preys upon him. Nevertheless, he accepts a position as secretary to the Earl of Errol (Emilia’s father-in-law), and finds himself at least on the fringe of Caroline’s circle.

Caroline, by this time, is used to guarding her secret; it is Clarence and Adela who can’t help reacting to one another’s presence (Clarence is not until this time aware of the connection between the two young women), and their joint consciousness puts all sorts of wrong ideas into various people’s heads—something Adela cannot combat without giving Caroline away, which she won’t do even to Seeton:

    “I have, without discovering my motives, ascertained that the individual who has awakens my fears, has neither relatives abroad, nor friends here; he has neither fortune or expectancy , and that a dark mystery hangs on the adventures of his former life. All this I have ascertained from various sources, and this piecemeal knowledge when put together has certainly been the source of much suspicion and many fears. Are you acquainted with these circumstances?”
    “I am,” replied Adela, “but—”
    “Pardon me,” he resumed, “for interrupting you, though I honour the candour, the sincerity which has made you acquainted with these painful particulars, yet what are the terrors for your fate that they do not engender! How little are you fitted to be the sharer of the precarious fortune of an adventurer!—a being of such delicacy, such sensibility.”
    “You are in error, indeed you are,” cried Adela, much confused.
    “Deal with me sincerely,” cried Mr Auber, “be above the subterfuges in which your sex delight to take refuge. This stranger, fortunate in that, if pursued by a destiny the most adverse , has certainly awakened an interest in your heart.”
    He changed colour as he spoke, and gazed on her with eyes that sought to penetrate the inmost recesses of her soul…

In the long run, however, and upon a better acquaintance with Clarence, Seeton grows less disapproving. Seeton himself is in even more of a quagmire than when we first met him. Sophia’s wealthy aunt dies without leaving a will—meaning her extensive fortune reverts to her husband’s family, instead of coming to her favourite niece, as everyone expected—including Captain Auber, who pushed Seeton at her in pursuit of that golden prize. Now, with Sophia almost portionless, the Captain would be only too willing if his son forgot about the very honour which, up to this point, he has been remorselessly dinning into his ears to hold him up to the mark. But the very thing that changes Captain Auber’s mind is the same which confirms Seeton in his resolution to go through with the marriage:

“I am rightly punished for entering so lightly into an engagement so solemn. What would be the consequence of breaking it? Sophia loves me, not as I might have been loved—but as deeply as her nature would permit—heartless to all, she has never been insensible to me. That thought alone forbids an act alien alike to gratitude and honour. She has lost too a considerable fortune, that golden lure that won my father to use his fatal agency. Would not she—would not the world believe, that this had some influence on my falling away from the troth I had plighted her. It must never be; Sophia must be my wife—and that too shortly. And she, whom would that I had never seen, or seen much sooner, must bless a happier, and I hope, better man than I am. Clarence,” he continued, as he paced to and fro in his room, “I will use myself to that name; chase from my heart the cold unchristian feeling that hitherto has made me shun him, stretch forth to him the hand of fellowship and friendship, and teach my heart to hold him as a brother. Adela shall smile, though not on me…”

Poor Adela!—she’s a better friend than Caroline really deserves; who is, of course, afraid that (to use Seeton’s words) she is even less “fitted to be the sharer of the precarious fortune of an adventurer”:

Shutting herself up, she yielded to the train of reflections  which a circumstance so trifling as her brother’s manner had awakened. What is Clarence, she thought, in their eyes, in the eyes of the world? The dependant of the earl. If they inquire further, to whom can he trace his being? alas! he knows not. Parentless, friendless, with no inheritance, save his talents and his virtues, how will the proud Aubers spurn him should he seek to blend his unknown name with theirs. Duty and love in my case are incompatible; I must renounce one or the other…

Matters still hang in the balance when Clarence’s past does catch up with him, and Caroline is forced to make her choice…

Meanwhile, all sorts of people are in love with Adela, or at least lusting after her—among them Lord Egremont, whose dissolute tendencies lead him to assume that a young woman like her, poor and obscure, might be willing to trade her virtue for a life of luxury. In one of this novel’s most shocking touches, he tacitly confides his dishonourable intentions to Captain Auber, at a moment when Adela’s fascination for both of the Captain’s sons is making itself felt:

    “What views have her friends for her?” inquired Lord Egremont. “She will never bear sitting down passively in Wales, after this introduction to life.”
    “Her face is her fortune, so I imagine her views and those of her mother are directed to the usual point—matrimony.”
    “Ah! lovely as she is, she may find herself disappointed. But she might make her fortune very easily, if she is not squeamish.”
    Looks more than words conveyed his meaning to Captain Auber, and in the same voiceless language they were replied to. ‘Hypocrisy is a homage vice pays to virtue’, and villain addressing villain, even in the security of privacy, will rather imply, than express his meaning. These two mature sinners soon understood each other , and the sacrifice of innocence, was to draw still closer the bonds that already united them. Adela’s mere removal from the world of fashion would never have given the Captain half the security which he felt in the present plan…

It seems that, many years ago, Lord Egremont knew Adela’s father and did him a service. His knowledge of the father she lost as a small child interests Adela in Lord Egremont as nothing else could have, and he continues to use this as bait to gain her attention and company.

Throughout the early sections of the novel there are hints of mystery and tragedy in the Belmonts’ past; of a great injustice done and borne with, both because of the lack of will to fight back and (probably more decisively) insufficient resources. More information comes to light courtesy of the Earl of Errol, whose late brother was a close friend of Mr Belmont and had possession of certain documents relating to him, which subsequently came into the possession of the Earl. Lord Errol makes this known to Adela and invites her to examine the papers for herself; although by the time she does so, a journal kept by Mr Belmont that the Earl was quite sure was amongst those papers has mysteriously disappeared…

The resolution of the many subplots in The Beauty Of The British Alps is unexpected in both tone and content, looking simultaneously back to the Gothic novel (evil doings in Italy!) and forward to the sensation novel (evil doings in England!), while reminding us that this is a pre-Victorian novel by making its deus ex machina a woman of dubious morals, to say the least, who brings happiness to most of the main characters by pursuing a course of cold-blooded and obsessive revenge.

Back when Miss Egremont’s mother was still alive, Lord Egmont had a passionate affair with a young widow, Lady Ruthven, during which time he lost his head to the extent of confiding to her certain secrets—secrets involving fraud, forgery, and even murder…

Lady Ruthven has managed to hold onto her reputation and her place in society, and is frequently included in the house-parties and excursions organised by the Auber-Errol-Egremont circle. Now that Lord Egremont is a widower, Lady Ruthven expects him to make good on his promise to marry her; but not only has he lost any desire to marry again (assuming he ever really meant a word of it), but his thoughts are now entirely centred on Adela, with whom he is growing almost obsessed—a situation to which Lady Ruthven responds by appointing herself Adela’s new best friend and attaching herself to the young woman with great tenacity, somewhat to Adela’s dismay.

(It is another of this novel’s fascinating touches that, of all the characters, the wicked Lady Ruthven is about the only one who never blames Adela for anything, in this case for “stealing” Lord Egremont—while everyone else points the finger at her, sooner or later, whether for being a man-magnet, provoking duels, interfering with the arrangement of suitable marriages, hiding disgraceful secrets, pursuing an illicit relationship, you name it. Even the paranoid Caroline at one point becomes convinced that she is losing Clarence to Adela, and treats her accordingly.)

And indeed, in the long run Lady Ruthven will prove to be the best friend that Adela ever has had. Certainly no-one else is in a position to help her when, finally accepting that she is never going to respond to his lures voluntarily, Lord Egremont arranges to have her abducted from a masquerade party and carried off to one of his houses in a remote corner of Scotland…

…but it doesn’t stop there. The very personification of ‘the woman scorned’, Lady Ruthven has a tale to tell, and she chooses her audience with care:

    “Do you now see how far you are interested in what I have already revealed?”
    “Yes,” answered Mrs Belmont, “he is holding the place my daughter ought to fill. He must have been aware of that the moment he beheld her. Did he feel nothing towards the dear girl? no remorse for the rights he usurped? no yearnings towards the same blood, for legitimate or illegitimate still they are cousins?”
    “Yes, I will tell you what he felt—a paralysis of the heart with terror, though not from remorse; but the well practiced dissembler  betrayed it not to her, nor anyone beside involuntarily. Since then another feeling has grown into his heart.”
    Dreadful was the light that gleamed in the eyes of the narratress, as the ground of her vengeance against her perfidious paramour  was thus recalled to her mind.
    “Yet, dear madam, you have other debts to Lord Egremont besides those of which I have already informed you. In him you behold not only the early foe of your husband, the ungrateful usurper of his honours and his fortune, the defamer of his name, and the destroyer of his peace; but you behold in him the wretch that meditates the seduction of your daughter—you behold in him the murderer of your son!”

 

27/02/2015

The Mysteries Of Paris

Sue4b“You know my ideas on the subject of the good which a man ought to do who has the knowledge, the will, and the power. To succour unhappy, but deserving, fellow creatures is well; to seek after those who are struggling against misfortune with energy and honour, and to aid them, sometimes without their knowledge,—to prevent, in right time, misery and temptation, is better; to reinstate such perfectly in their own estimation,—to lead back to honesty those who have preserved in purity some generous and ennobling sentiments in the midst of the contempt that withers them, the misery that eats into them, the corruption that encircles them, and, for that end, to brave, in person, this misery, this corruption, this contagion, is better still; to pursue, with unalterable hatred, with implacable vengeance, vice, infamy, and crime, whether they be trampling in the mud, or be clothed in purple and fine linen, that is justice; but to give aid inconsiderately to well-merited degradation, to prostitute and lavish charity and commiseration, by bestowing help on unworthy and undeserving objects, is most infamous; it is impiety,—very sacrilege! it is to doubt the existence of the Almighty; and so, he who acts thus ought to be made to understand.”

I have long and sorely neglected my investigation of the roots of modern detective fiction, but now it is time to return to the murky depths of 19th century crime fiction. In an earlier post, I examined Catherine Crowe’s 1841 novel, Adventures Of Susan Hopley, which I described as a literary bridge between the Newgate Novels of the 1820s and the sensations fiction of the 1860s. The main thread of the novel describes the efforts of various characters to solve the murder of a Mr Wentworth, and to clear the name of his manservant, Andrew Hopley, whose disappearance has led to an assumption of his guilt. Around this anchor plot is built a dizzyingly complicated narrative with a myriad of intersecting plots and numberless characters with multiple identities.

“A dizzyingly complicated narrative with a myriad of intersecting plots and numberless characters with multiple identities” also describes the next important entry in the timeline of detective fiction, Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris. Sue himself was something of a contradiction, a young man born into the upper middle classes and with aristocratic, even royal, connections – his godparents were Prince Eugène de Beauharnais and the Empress Joséphine – but who became an impassioned and vocal socialist. After a varied career as a naval surgeon, Sue settled in Paris and found work as a journalist with the liberal press, in time acquiring various publications himself and becoming an early “press baron”. He began writing fiction in the early 1830s, attracting readers with his exotic settings and scandalous plots. His fame today, however, rests chiefly upon his work for the feuilletons.

A “feuilleton”, meaning “leaf” or “scrap of paper”, was a supplement in a polical newspaper or magazine, offered in addition to the news and political editorialisation. In the earliest use of the term, it often referred to an arts or cultural section; later, usually to a work of fiction. Most popular of all were lengthy serial stories published over months or even years, such that “feuilleton” eventually became another word for “serial”. Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris appeared in Le Journal des Débats from June 1842 to October 1843.

Les Mystères de Paris was wildly popular, and not just in France. It was reprinted all over the world (sort of, as we shall see), and inspired a barrage of copycat publications, including two that we shall also be examining in this series of posts: Les Mystères de Londres by Paul Feval, another important figure in the development of crime and detective fiction, and its direct competitor, The Mysteries Of London / Mysteries Of The Court Of London by the king of English pulp fiction, George W. M. Reynolds. Another of Les Mystères de Paris‘s immediate offspring was Alexandre Dumas’ Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, while its use of interlocking plots and interconnected characters, its sprawling, often undisciplined narrative and its use of fiction as a vehicle for social criticism were a significant influence upon Victor Hugo in the writing of Les Misérables.

Les Mystères de Paris was, as I say, republished all over the world, but in many different forms: there really is no such thing as a “definite edition”. However, conversely, some releases are to be avoided at all cost. Abridged versions are common, while certain English editions were also significantly bowdlerised. To the best of my knowledge, the Project Gutenberg version, based upon the 1899 6-volume Boston edition, is complete, and probably the safest copy to access. In this form, Les Mystères de Paris is 1,384 pages long.

I started out comparing Les Mystères de Paris to Adventures Of Susan Hopley and I’m about to do it again, inasmuch as I am going to declare it similarly impossible to summarise: it is, likewise, the kind of thing that demands either six blog posts or only one, and the interests of everyone’s sanity, I’ve decided on just one. Rather than really trying to convey its multitude of plots, I want to concentrate instead on some of the most striking aspects of this work, and in particular how it differs from contemporary English writing in the same field, which is shown up as shamefully timid by comparison.

The main character of Les Mystères de Paris is a certain M. Rodolph. The opening section of the novel finds its hero intervening between a young girl of the streets and a former convict known as “Le Chourineur” (the butcher), the latter a local terror for his violent temper, his enormous strength, and his history as a killer who served fifteen years in the hulks for murdering a soldier while in the grip of what we might today describe as a psychotic break. It is not entirely clear what Le Chourineur intended to do to the girl – he later insists he only meant a bit of rough fun, though we’re inclined to doubt it – but Rodolph does not wait to find out. A desperate fight between the two men ends with the Chourineur thoroughly vanquished—which earns Rodolph his respect and admiration.  Le Chourineur insists upon both Rodolph and the girl accompanying him to a nearby “tapis-franc” – a thieves’ haunt, where liquor and food is served – where over a rough dinner Rodolph persuades the other two to tell him their stories.

In many ways Les Mystères de Paris is an extremely peculiar book. It serves up any amount of sex, violence, intrigue, plot and counterplot—while every now and then halting the action so that Eugène Sue, either through Rodolph or via his omniscient narrator, can deliver a lecture on the prevailing social conditions, unjust laws, the responsibility of the rich to the poor, the selfish immorality of the aristocracy, the state of the prison system, or some other personal bugbear. The result is what might reasonably be described as “socialist-sensation fiction”.

Eugène Sue’s main thesis is made crystal clear at the outset. Although the streets of Paris swarm with criminals, although for many theft, fraud and even murder are a way of life, there are others who hold fast to a moral code and try to live a decent life. These are the people, Sue contends, to whom the rich have a duty; who should be sought out and rewarded for their tenacious honesty. It is this cause to which Rodolph has devoted himself.

Most critically, however, and most praise-worthily, Sue believes in redemption. The people who Rodolph helps are not only those who have stayed honest all along, but those who have repented their sins and are trying to make a new start. He spends much time decrying the conditions that make this almost impossible, either because someone who has been in jail can’t get a job, or because of the sheer inadequacy of the wages offered by most employers. Temptations to crime are everywhere, encouragements to stay honest few and far between.

Unexpectedly, one of those who is trying to stay clean is Le Chourineur, whose personal code will not allow him to stoop to theft—even though he would live better either as a robber or a convict. Here we hit another of Sue’s red buttons, the fact that people are often better off in prison than they are in the world at large, there having at least a roof, a bed, food, and the chance to earn a little money (although that said, he’s not happy about prison conditions, either). Rodolph is struck by this aspect of Le Chourineur’s history:

    “You were cold, thirsty, hungry, Chourineur, and yet you did not steal?”
    “No; and yet I was horribly wretched. It’s a fact, that I have often gone with an empty bread-basket for two days at a time…but I never stole.”
    “For fear of a gaol?”
    “Pooh!” said the Chourineur, shrugging his shoulders, and laughing loudly… “An honest man, I was famishing; a thief, I should have been supported in prison, and right well, too! But I did not steal because—because—why, because the idea of stealing never came across me; so that’s all about it!”

Rodolph is moved by this rough honesty into declaring Le Chourineur to have both “heart” and “honour”, which in turn serves to attach the former convict to him with dog-like devotion.

The “unconscious rectitude” of Le Chourineur’s code, as it is called, highlights another of Sue’s beliefs. Although he was hostile to the Catholic church as an entity, he was nevertheless religious, and this display of conscience where it might be least expected is a recurring theme. It is a display which tends to happen more amongst the working-classes than the aristocracy, we note; and yet—and yet–

For someone writing in 1842, Eugène Sue’s views seem not merely progressive, but often startlingly so—but they are undercut (at least to modern eyes) by a taint of classism. In spite of his socialist tendencies, it is clear that Sue did not believe in genuine equality; further, that he believed that there were actual, ingrained differences between the nobility and the common people, as is shown most distastefully in two of the most shocking of the novel’s many subplots, both of which feature a young girl being drugged and raped—one because she resists the advances of her employer, the other as the fastest route into a life of prostitution.

The terrible vulnerability of poor girls is another of the novel’s many concerns. The latter victim is the girl whom Rodolph saves from Le Chourineur, and who is also – although with reluctance and shame – persuaded to tell her history. Her name is Marie, known as Fleur-de-Marie for her delicate appearance, once called “La Pegriotte” (little thief) and now “La Goualeuse” (the sweet-voiced one, for her singing) – like I said, everyone here has at least two names – and her short life has been one of misery and abuse.

Abandoned on the streets of Paris when little more than a baby, she was taken in by a vicious hag known as “La Chouette” (the screech-owl) and subjected to all sorts of deprivation and violence. Running away at the age of eight, she was picked up as a vagabond and spent the next eight years in prison—being released when deemed “an adult”. Subsequently she fell into the hands of the owner of the tapis-franc, “the Ogress”, who also happens to be pawn-broker, a fence—and a pimp. Fleur-de-Marie has been only six weeks on the job when she comes to the compassionate attention of Rodolph.

Mind you—you have to do some mighty fine reading between the lines to take in the full story of Fleur-de-Marie at the first reading. Here’s how her rape and her brief career as a prostitute are described:

“At this moment I met the Ogress and one of her old women who I knew where I lodged, and was always coming about me since I left prison. They told me they would find me work, and I believed them. I went with them, so exhausted for want of food that my sense were gone. They gave me brandy to drink, and—and—here I am!” said the unhappy creature, hiding her face in her hands.

Compare this to the frank recitation of Louise Morel, daughter of a working-class family, who is taken into service by one of the novel’s leading villains, M. Ferrand, a notary, a thorough-going hypocrite with a public reputation for rectitude and piety and a private life steeped in vice and crime. One of Ferrand’s main amusements is bringing young girls into his household, ruioning them, them casting them aside. In Louise’s case, her father is in debt to him, and will be imprisoned at a word from Ferrand, meaning that Louise’s mother and numerous siblings will be left to starve. She herself is subjected to violence, and restrained and starved, but nevertheless holds Ferrand off, until he finally goes to extremes:

    “This lethargic feeling,” continued Louise, “so completely overpowered me, that, unable any longer to resist it, I at length, contrary to my usual custom, fell asleep upon my chair. This is all I recollect before—before— Oh, forgive me, father, forgive me! indeed, indeed, I am not guilty; yet— I know not how long I slept; but when I awoke it was to shame and dishonour, for I found M. Ferrand beside me…
    “My first impulse was to rush from the room, but M. Ferrand forcibly detained me; and I still felt so weak, so stupefied with the medicine you speak of as having been mingled in my drink, that I was powerless as an infant. ‘Why do you wish to escape from me now?’ inquired M. Ferrand, with an air of surprise which filled me with dread. ‘What fresh caprice is this? Am I not here by your own free will and consent?’ ‘Oh, sir!’ exclaimed I, ‘this is most shameful and unworthy, to take advantage of my sleep to work my ruin; but my father shall know all!’ Here my master interrupted me by bursting into loud laughter, ‘Upon my word, young lady,’ said he, ‘you are very amusing. So you are going to say that I availed myself of your being asleep to effect your undoing. But who do you suppose will credit such a falsehood? It is now four in the morning, and since ten o’clock last night I have been here… What, in Heaven’s name, can you tell your father? That you thought proper to invite me into your bedroom? But invent any tale you please, you will soon find what sort of a reception it will meet with…’.”

M. Ferrand proceeds to blast Louise’s reputation, wailing to anyone who will listen to him about his horror at discovering that he, the very personification of virtue, has being harbouring a whore under his roof; and subsequently, when Louise’s baby is born dead, he has her arrested on charges of infanticide and so facing the guillotine. But luckily for the Morel family – and most unluckily for M. Ferrand – by this time Rodolph has interested himself in their affairs…

The resolutions of the twin plots of Louise and Fleur-de-Marie differ as radically as the telling of their sad histories. Louise, though suffering horribly, refuses to take any guilt upon her own shoulders and sensibly gets on with life; while Fleur-de-Marie, who is filled with guilt and shame when we first meet her, only becomes more so over the course of the novel, until it literally subsumes her. The unfortunate implication seems to be that while a working-class girl might be able to survive such a trauma, this is a task beyond anyone with the sensibilities of “a lady”—even if she doesn’t happen to know she is “a lady”…

At the conclusion of Fleur-de-Marie’s account of herself, we are given the following:

    Rodolph had listened to the recital, made with so painful a frankness, with deep interest. Misery, destitution, ignorance of the world, had weighed down this wretched girl, cast at sixteen years of age on the wide world of Paris!
    Rodolph involuntarily thought of a beloved child whom he had lost,—a girl, dead at six years of age, and who, had she survived, would have been, like Fleur-de-Marie, sixteen years and a half old. This recollection excited the more highly his solicitude for the unhappy creature whose narration he had just heard.

Immediately, of course, a knowing grin starts to slide across the face of the experienced sensation-reader; but Eugène Sue has a surprise in store for us. Before the first volume of Les Mystères de Paris has concluded, he gives us the following blunt statement:

At this moment, we will content ourselves with stating, what the reader has no doubt already guessed, that Fleur-de-Marie was the fruit of the secret marriage of Rodolph and Sarah, and that they both believed their daughter dead.

It is, however, about a thousand pages further on before Rodolph finds out the truth. By withholding this information from the characters but not from the reader, Sue adds a fiendishly tortuous quality to his telling of the many, many subsequent travails of Fleur-de-Marie.

If Fleur-de-Marie is actually a lady, then of course Rodolph, despite his working-class disguise and the ease with which he moves through the various levels of Parisian society, is a gentleman. In fact, he is rather more than that. The novel is only a few pages old when Rodolph’s companion is softly calling him “Your Highness”, and not much older before Eugène Sue has revealed his hero to be no less a person that the Grand Duke Gustavus Rodolph of Gerolstein, a (fictional) German principality. After being taught a variety of painful life-lessons by a series of tragedies, the Grand Duke left Gerolstein for France where, after adopting the persona of M. Rodolph, a simple workman, he made it his mission to seek out and secretly assist the worthy poor—while also punishing (sometimes with startling violence and even cruelty) the worst of criminals. Meanwhile, in his own persona, Rodolph moves freely amongst the French aristocracy, where a whole series of parallel subplots unfold.

As I have already intimated, and as must already be clear even from this brief overview, the plot of Les Mystères de Paris is too insanely complicated even to begin trying to summarise it; so instead I’ll simply try to give you an idea of its main threads:

First, of course, there’s Rodolph himself. He was only a teenager when his father, the previous Grand Duke, committed the fatal blunder of putting his education in the hands of a certain Doctor César Polidori, “a renowned linguist, a distinguished chemist, learned historian, and deeply versed in the study of all the exact and physical sciences”—but also “atheist, cheat, and hypocrite, full of stratagem and trick, concealing the most dangerous immorality, the most hardened scepticism, under an austere exterior”—and a very ambitious man. Polidori makes it his business to encourage all the worst features in Rodolph’s character, in particular encouraging in him to neglect his duties; foreseeing a time when he might be the power behind the throne in Gerolstein.

(Polidori turns up in various guises, involved in various nefarious plots, all the way through Les Mystères de Paris.)

Meanwhile, Rodolph also falls victim to an even more insidious danger. Sarah Seyton, a beautiful young Scottish girl, the daughter of a baronet, had become obsessed with the thought of making a royal marriage even since having her fortune told to that effect. Sensibly not setting her sights too high, Sarah targets the inexperienced but hot-blooded young heir to the Grand Duchy of Gerolstein; further assisted in this plan by her late father’s political connections, which secure her an introduction to the Gerolstein Court. After ingratiating herself with the susceptible Grand Duke Maximilian, Sarah then gets to work on Rodolph, finally inflaming him to such a degree as to draw from him a proposal of marriage.

Rodolph, though dizzy with his first serious passion, is only too well aware of what his father’s reaction will be to such a mésalliance, and presses upon Sarah the absolute necessity for secrecy. She agrees and, with the connivance of Polidori, with whom Sarah has entered into a partnership of exploitation, the two are married. Sarah has no intention of staying in the shadows a second longer than absolutely necessary, however, and as soon as her pregnancy is sufficiently advanced, she begins dressing so as to reveal it…

The consequences are tragic, and very nearly fatal, as in the inevitable violent confrontation between Rodolph and the Grand Duke, the young man is provoked into drawing his sword upon his father—saved from parricide only by the swift intervention of Sir Walter Murphy, the blunt, painfully honest Englishman to whom Rodolph’s physical education has been entrusted. In the subsequent fallout, Polidori is arrested. To save his own skin, he proves that the marriage isn’t legal, and also sells out Sarah, producing one of her letters to her brother and accomplice, which he took the precaution of acquiring earlier, in which her schemes against Rodolph are spelled out in the most cold-blooded terms—and in which she hints at the possible disposal of the Grand Duke Maximilian.

Overwhelmed with grief and remorse, Rodolph did everything he could to expiate his guilt, leaving Gerolstein for a time at his father’s command, and later obediently marrying a bride chosen for him. During his absence, Sarah was banished from the country and the whole business hushed up. At that time, Rodolph’s deep bitterness and resentment did not leave him much feeling for his child, but later, when he heard that Sarah had remarried – or married – he found himself yearning for his daughter. He tried to contact Sarah, in order to beg for custody of the girl, by then four years old, but for two years was unable to gain any word of the child—and when he finally hear from Sarah, it was to inform him that their daughter was dead…

One of the novel’s surprises is that Sarah, too, genuinely believes her daughter dead; it isn’t just another scheme, or at least, not on her part. As part of her preparations for her marriage with the Count Macgregor (I’m not sure how anyone gets to be “Count Macgregor”, and the novel isn’t telling), she farms the girl out and arranges for her to be raised on the proceeds of a trust fund. Unfortunately, the people who have charge of Amelia (aka Marie) decide that such a nest egg would be wasted on the child and appropriate it for themselves, covering up the business with a fake death and an equally fake investment failure: a transaction facilitated by our old friend, the notary M. Ferrand.

When first sent away by his father, Rodolph swore a solemn oath:

“From that hour I have been a prey to the deepest, the most acute remorse. I immediately quitted Germany for the purpose of travelling, with the intent, if possible, of expiating my guilt; and this self-imposed task I shall continue while I live. To reward the good, to punish the evil-doer, relieve those who suffer, penetrate into every hideous corner where vice holds her court, for the purpose of rescuing some unfortunate creatures from the destruction into which they have fallen,—such is the employment I have marked out for myself.”

Such he did until summoned back to Gerolstein to marry, and such he begins doing again after the death of his wife. One of the first recipients of his assistance is a certain Mme Georges, real name Mme Duresnal, a connection of some close friends of his family, who he found in great distress in Paris, and removed to his model farm in the countryside. Mme Georges has the misfortune to be married to a man who, although well-born, has become one of the most vicious and feared of the Parisian criminal element. Many years earlier, Duresnal not only left his wife destitute, but stole away their only child, a son, with the aim of raising him to follow in his own footsteps. Unfortunately, from his father’s point-of-view, the boy took after his mother; and when as a mere youth he was placed in a bank with the sole purpose of facilitating a robbery, he blew the whistle on his father and his associates. Swearing bloody vengeance on his son, Duresnal was sentenced to life imprisonment—but subsequently escaped…

Rodolph’s plunge into the Parisian underworld is in hope of finding some hint of the fate of the boy, who after living under a series of false names, and moving from job to job, has disappeared—having either gone into hiding, or having fallen victim to his own father. The only clue to his identity that his grieving mother was able to offer Rodolph is that the last time she saw her child, he was wearing “a small Saint Esprit, sculptured in lapis lazuli, tied round his neck by a chain of silver”.

Various plots and manoeuvres bring Rodolph into contact with a notorious criminal known, for his superior education, as the Schoolmaster; his partner in crime (among other things) is none other than Fleur-de-Marie’s old nemesis, La Chouette. Rodolph is trying to lure these two vile criminals into a trap when he makes two startling discoveries: they have knowledge of Fleur-de-Marie’s origins, and La Chouette is wearing the lapis lazuli keepsake of Mme Georges’ son. The Schoolmaster is known as an escaped convict, one who has gone to length of horribly disfiguring his own face in order to conceal his identity: it occurs to Rodolph that he may be none other than M. Duresnal.

So begins a violent conflict that forms one of the main threads of the novel, as Rodolph counters and thwarts the criminal pair, earning their deadly enmity and finding himself in ongoing danger of his life, all while trying to discover what exactly the Schoolmaster and La Chouette might know about Fleur-de-Marie and the missing youth, and also protecting Fleur-de-Marie herself, against whom La Chouette nurses a venomous hatred. One of her favourite fantasies involves throwing vitriol into the girl’s lovely face… And horrifying as this is—we must observe that the punishment which Rodolph eventually inflicts upon the Schoolmaster comprises the novel’s most shocking moment.

Meanwhile, Rodolph is not the only one who has been widowed. A free woman again, Sarah is back on his track, more obsessed than ever not just with the thought of marrying royalty, but of drawing Rodolph back into her web. At this time Sarah does not know that Rodolph saw her incriminating letters, as so fools herself that she might be able to make him love her again. She follows him, spies upon him, weaves schemes around him…and sees that he is in love with another woman, and a married woman at that, who becomes the target of her secret emnity as a consequence. (I’m not even going to touch that incredibly convoluted subplot.)

Finally Sarah decides that the only way she can possibly recapture Rodolph and the crown of Gerolstein is through their daughter; their dead daughter. She has marked Rodolph’s protection of, and deep affection for, Fleur-de-Marie, and realises that she has identified his most vulnerable point. Were their daughter still alive, she could surely persuade him into a marriage that, however little he wanted it personally, would legitimise the girl. Sarah begins plotting to impose a fake Amelia upon Rodolph—deciding also to simultaneously remove an unwanted complication and increase Rodolph’s emotional vulnerability by having Fleur-de-Marie murdered. It is not until after she has set her plot in motion that Sarah finds out who Fleur-de-Marie actually is

.

Sue7

14/07/2013

The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana

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

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

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

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

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

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

—to—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dearie me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there.

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

15/07/2012

The Trail Of The Serpent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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