Plasticity and Recycled Characters – Part Two


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Blush. My PC just published an empty post, and I didn’t ask it to. For once, that IT blunder wasn’t my fault. Well, I said IT doesn’t like me…

In part one I was discussing how Elizabeth Gaskell used a particular character type – based on her lost and beloved brother – the charming, brave, dashing and handsome sailor, three times, in slightly different variations.

Mark One, Will Wilson in ‘Mary Barton’ is very sweet, possesses the dark ringlets that Gaskell always gives to this type, has the liking to tell a good tall tale she always gives to this sailor type too, is upright and honourable and as his foster mother says, ‘steady’, but is essentially very simple and has very little between his ears.

Mark Two, Frederick Hale, is altogether delightful, possessed of startling good looks and the dark ringlets, he loves to tell a story, adores his fiance and newly discovered sister, risks his life to visit his family and his dying mother (he’s wanted on a charge of mutiny] and has a wonderful sense of the ridiculous.

Mark Three is a bit of a deterioration’; Charley Kinraid is ringletted, handsome, charming, dashing and brave, but emotionally superficial and something of an opportunist.

She also recycled another type at least twice – the Hardworking, Unornamental Stoic Hero type. This type deteriorated too between the early and later variation.

He doesn’t have ringlets – they’d get in the way of his Work Ethic and might attract The Wrong Sort of Woman, but he does have a boundless capacity for devotion. He is steady and some; in fact, he can be so steady he comes to resemble a rock pinning the heroine down with his insistent love – but she does comes to see his worth.

Type One is John Thornton in ‘North and South’. It is a mark of GAskell’s gift as a writer that she managed to make me feel for this character, for the man stands for everything I despise.

Until towards the end he’s a devoted upholder of merciless, unregulated capitalism, he is a ‘tireless champion of the overdog’ (no, that isn’t mine; I lifted it from a nineteen fifties film starring Arthur Askey – of all people); he believes in Hard Work.
Hmm. We all know the old saw – all work and no play… You’d need a microscope to discover his sense of humour.

He seems totally arrogant and unbending, even in his unrequited love – but – After Margaret Hale has rejected his proposal quite as scornfully as Elizabeth Bennet does Mr Darcy:
‘When he had gone, she thought she had seen the gleam of unshed tears in his eyes; and that turned her proud dislike into something different and kinder, though, if nearly as painful – self reproach for having caused such mortification to anyone.’

That did make me feel for him.

He does have moral standards – he’s a great believer in honour and he is brave enough – but there is something inhumane about them, as his love object Margaret Hale is well aware. There is something puritanical about him.

We realise that his tragic background – his entrepreneur father failed in business and killed himself, leaving his family destitute and his mother consequently embittered and emotionally frozen, though she worships her son to an alarming degree – has made him what he is; we feel compassion for him; during the course of the story, he comes to recognise the humanity of his ‘hands’, the need for human values in business as well as private life and his obligation to safeguard the welfare of his workforce.

He also learns humility when his business nearly goes bankrupt, and we leave him and Margaret Hale in tender reconciliation.

I did like that…

Philip Hepburn in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ is Mark Two of this mutating character, and I have to say that I didn’t like him at all. Puritanical, self righteous, cautious (except in his headlong almost masochistic passion for Sylvia) he really needs to write to a problem page about his attitude to life.

Fun? Never heard of it; interests? what are those? His interests in life are Hard Work and planning to marry Sylvia Robson.

His betrayal of Kinraid and Sylvia, when he fails to pass on the press ganged Kinraid’s message for her, is dismal. It is true that Gaskell makes all the excuses for him she can – he has just found out yet more rumours about Kinraid’s womanising and has found out, too, that Kinraid’s cousin Bessy Corney thinks that she is engaged to Kinraid at the same time that he has been pressing his suit on Sylvia – but it is still bad enough.

When discovered and rejected by Sylvia, Hepburn, full of repentance goes off to become a hero in the hope of impressing Sylvia and winning back her love.

It is an irony of the text that he does in fact become the very hero that Sylvia has wanted all along to worship, only to be so disfigured in an explosion that he becomes unrecognisable and fears that she will be disgusted by him.

Their death bed understanding slightly reconciled me to him. I could see an interesting turn of the wheel of fortune in the text. In the beginning of the story, when Sylvia first meets Kinraid, she is so impressed by his brave act in getting almost shot dead while defying a press gang that she doesn’t mind that he looks like an animated corpse – she becomes infatuated with him even before he gets his looks back; in the end, Hepburn is disfigured and dying, but still, he is the hero it is part of her psyche to need to worship, and he new found love for him is sincere enough in its own way.

This use of basic types, transforming their psyche (not as if that was a thing envisaged in Gaskell’s era) with a tweak here, a trait there, is very intriguing and as I said before,must be what all authors do. Add a quality here, drop one there, and we have a totally new individual, and one whose experiences must necessarily be different. That is one of the fascinating aspects of writing.

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