Plasticity and Evolving Characters


George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall (2).jpgA year or so ago I took some time off from reading a selection of the classic robber novels -ie ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ and ‘Rob Roy’ – for a change of genre with Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘North and South’.

What interested me particularly about this book – though it’s a good read anyway, all about the terrible conditions in cotton manufacturing in mid Victorian Manchester – was how it illustrated how character types can be used and reused by the author.

They are an awkward lot, these characters! Quite apart from the fact that they take on a life of their own in one story (I don’t mean in the Aleks Sager’s Demon sense, Aagh! I mean within the pages of the novel) they can resemble viruses – they can mutate, and split into many.

I recognized two types in this book which Elizabeth Gaskell was to use again.

The first is the Handsome, Brave, Spirited, Slightly Rebellious,Yarn Spinning Sailor who always has long dark ringlets and flashing white teeth.

I suspect this character type was largely based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s beloved brother John, who tragically went missing either on or immediately after a voyage – it’s not clear which – when she was still very young. Some of his letters to her survive, and from their teasing, affectionate, observant tone it is obvious what an adorable brother he must have been for her and why she must have been so devastated by his loss.

For sure she was haunted by the image of a lost sailor who returns – he comes up in ‘Cranford’ in the form of Poor Peter, as Frederick n ‘North and South’ and as Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.

It seems clear to me that she had difficulties in treating this character with the necessary objectivity, and always felt obliged to give him a happy ending (the happy ending she no doubt hoped that her lost brother had somehow come by, though lost to her in real life).

This fellow starts off quite simply as the guiless Will Wilson, the hero Jem’s cousin and Mary’s friend in ‘Mary Barton’ (1847). We read he has the said dark ringlets, is merry, tells tall tales and doesn’t like having them challenged, and his foster mother praises him for having the ‘steadiness’ his parents lacked. He falls in love sincerely with a plain girl in danger of losing her vision and they later marry.

This basic character has developed a little more complexity and sophistication when he turns up as Margaret Hale’s brother in ‘North and South’ (1856). He’s still got those dark ringlets, but this time with blue eyes – and is merry, but he is a fugitive from justice – having instigated a mutiny as a young Royal Navy Lieutenant. He’s generally lovable – impulsive, given a lurking capacity for violence but sunny natured, always doing things for other people, fond of his sister, risking capture to see his dying mother, devoted to his fiancée.

He makes a delightful contrast to Mary’s admirer, the serious, striving, sober and stark ‘I Pulled Myself Up By My Bootlaces Why Can’t Others Do Likewise’ entrepreneur John Thornton .

After this novel, Elizabeth Gaskell used this sailor character type again to good effect – in Charley Kinraid, the heroine’s romantic love interest in her 1863 novel ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ .

This character, however, is anything but ‘steady’. His womanizing is a by word when he pays court to the protagonist Sylvia, while his moral convictions are equally mutable – in the course of the novel he goes from shooting dead two press gang members as Specksioneer of a whaler to inevitable collusion with them when, having been impressed into the Royal Navy, he has risen through the ranks to be Captain (I’m sure Thomas Cotterill, if he’s reading this, will still completely disagree with me about Kinraid’s character).

He does, however, have a flashy charm, dark ringlets, and like Othello, wins the heroine’s heart with his stories.

Unlike the other two main characters in this melancholy tale, Charley Kinraid comes by a (in my opinion undeserved) extremely happy fate. On finding out that he cannot marry Sylvia Robson, he storms off and is married to a doting heiress in no time.

This, like Frederick Hale’s happy marriage to a doting wife and successful career (outside the UK) no doubt is just what Gaskell would have wanted for her own beloved sailor brother.

This transmutation of characters by an author is inevitable; there are all the stories that we might have told, using a particular character type, and all the traits which we didn’t develop in the story we ended up writing.

For instance, in my own first novel I had the aristocrat literally Turned Bandit in Émile Dubois, ex- smuggler and highwayman (leaving aside his running an eighteenth century protection racket in revolutionary Paris). Émile Dubois, when not in a mood for violence, is ,agnostic, cynical and wise cracking, good humoured and self mocking, while his love interest Sophie de Courcy is devout and romantic, with ‘Clarissa’ her favourite reading.

In my third  the protagonist Reynaud Ravensdale (a distant cousin of Émile’s) is also an Aristocrat Turned Bandit, but by contrast he is the romantic one, in fact adopting what would later be called a Byronic pose. In opposition, his love interest Isabella Murray is decidedly cynical, and finds Ravensdale’s histrionics purely ridiculous…

Some writers are notorious for re-cycling characters to good effect, particularly on their productivity – for instance, I wrote a post recently about Georgette Heyer; she was notorious for writing about two sorts of heroes, dividing them ‘into two basic categories: the Mark I hero, who is “The brusque, savage sort with a foul temper” and the Mark II hero, who is “Suave, well-dressed, rich, and a famous whip….’

Her heroines also divide into two basic types; the innocent (often with romantic notions) and the more knowing, witty and assertive and usually slightly older woman.

She, of course, made a huge reputation partly through re-cycling these basic character types as heroes and heroines in different settings.

Of course, the shade of Mr Darcy hovers here, who was reputedly, down to his habit of not dancing, based to some extent on Lord Byron, who in turn may have modeled his own behaviour on earlier, Gothic heroes…

With characters, as with plots, there can’t be originality; there can only be originality in how htey are depicted.

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