Moral Transformations of Scoundrels Through the Love of a Good Angel


41ZYpCCMnoL._AA160_EmileDubois-800 Cover reveal and PromotionalI was rambling about how the whole thing about reading Vulpius, Gaskell etc and brooding on their revelation of character, especially as regards moral transformation of a ‘bad’ into a ‘good’ person, made me think again about how much revelation of a character’s’ mental life is sufficient to make that character deep and rounded without being as it were, over exposed, how much mystery there should be, how far the narrator should be omniscient in this regard, etc etc.

As I said in my last, too, the depiction by Vulpius of Rinaldo Rinaldini’s mental life and especially his becoming disgusted with his life of violence is patchy, so that he certainly doesn’t come across as a rounded character, with human weaknesses (his passion for women hardly counts). If the author had stuck to the goal of writing and exciting story, that would be less of a problem – it is only because of Vulpius’ claim that his novel is ‘moral’ and his hero high minded that the reader is struck by this inadequacy.

Rinaldo is, however, shown gradually becoming disgusted by his life as a ‘Captain of Branditti’ rather than suddenly transformiing as a result of falling in love with his virtuous maiden, though this disillusionment with life as a robber seems to be originally inspired by his meeting with Aurelia. At first, he appears to delude himself about how he can deceive her about his previous character if he can escape with her.

When he finds out that Aurelia is being sent to a nunnery – whether willingly or not is far from clear – he says he will ‘bring about the contrary’ and lays plans for his men to seize the carriage and bring her to him. This is foiled, however, by an attack on his band by government troops.

As I said in my previous post, his intentions when he and his band attack her wicked husband Count Rozzio’s castle are far from clear – it is uncertain whether he intends to abduct her or not – but after her plea to be allowed to join her mother in a nunnery, he escorts her there and his outburst: ‘Now I feel what I am!’ is presumably meant to indicate a dawning realisation that no idealistic girl is going to like his chosen career.

It is only towards the end of the novel, when Rinaldo is on the run from both the Old Man of Fronteja and his old associates as well as the government authorities that he seems to be willing to put much effort into breaking away from his fellow bandits – but all his efforts to escape to a life of tranquility are foiled by the ubiquitous Old Man who insists that it is Rinaldo’s fate to become a military hero. As I have said too, the moral conversion aspect is dealt with rather sketchily, but it is at least demonstrated as a gradual process.

Dislike Richardson’s Pamela as I do – and the author really has achieved something to make me dislike a young girl powerless and trapped by a lecherous employer and potential rapist – she can’t be accused of not having a vivid mental life, a defect very obvious in Mr B, the anti hero whose moral transformation she achieves.

As I hope to read Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth this year, I’m expecting to encounter something on the same lines from them, but hopefully, with more sympathetic heroines. However, as in Richardson, as in Vulpius, a reader should expect the writer’s understanding of the mind to be limited by the understanding of the age in which they lived (the only exception to this limitation appearing to be – of course – Shakespeare).

As for Richardson’s rake who reforms – Mr B – he is always seen ‘from the outside’. We never know what he thinks except in so far as he reveals it through his speeches. These, for the most part, are a lot of self justifying nonsense, so one assumes his thoughts are on the same lines, along with a lot of pornographic visualisation of Pamela’s lovely bosom and ‘sweet shape’.

We see him only through Pamela’s naïve eyes, first as a black hearted wretch and then as her fiancé and ‘Dear Master’. It was fairly astute of Richardson, this not including any confiding letters from Mr B in the novel; if we knew what he was scheming the plot wouldn’t work so well.

Though Mr B accepts that he has been wrong about Pamela, how far this acknowledgement of her virtue and softening towards her is meant to illustrate a general moral change is far from clear. Mr B’s moral reformation is rather questionable, like his character.

Usually, Jane Austen’s heroines are charming and a pleasure to read about. It us unfortunate that the most virtuous of them, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, who is meant to be a personification of kindness and virtue, comes across as priggish and prudish, so horrified by the thought of an elopement that she likes awake shaking with disgust all night.

When the immoral, heartless flirt Henry Crawford (as near a character to a villain as you are likely to meet in Jane Austen, along with the ‘W’ team, Willoughby and Wickham) decides to trifle with her feelings, he ends up genuinely falling for her, a delightful touch. She is cold to him throughout, much preferring the virtuous and bland Edmund Bertram.

Yet, Henry Crawford ‘s passion for the strict Ms Price does come across as genuine – as his being persuaded into a lukewarm elopement with the former Maria Bertram does not.

I have to join with Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra in wishing that the author had brought a repentant Henry Crawford to win Fanny Prices’ grudging affection – so unfortunately, I must be something of a romantic.

Henry Crawford’s mental processes are only vaguely touched on by the author. From what one learns of them, one gets the impression she is puzzled by such a superficial man, though heartily disapproving. His basic motivational forces seem to be a combination of vanity, cynicism and laziness.

His attempt at moral conversion seems to have been mainly inspired by a desire to win Fanny Price. We do hear that he loved her ‘deeply as well as passionately’ and that he could have won her love had he been more persistent in his attempt to be virtuous, and this gave me at least a feeling of regret that the story ends as it does.

Henry Crawford, then, is the only character in Jane Austen who comes near to being a villain who attempts a moral transformation, and he fails dismally.

Mr Darcy has a moral transformation – but he is no villain; priggish and ungracious he may be – but he is always a Good Man, though Elizabeth thinks that he is capable of treachery.

The later, infinitely less skilled (though best selling) writer of romances in the late Victorian era, Charles Garvice, portrays his characters’ mental lives almost as sketchily as Vulpius a century earlier. In that strange combination of boys’ adventure story and sentimental romance that makes up ‘The Outcast of the Family Or a Battle Between Love and Pride’ we know very little of the thoughts of Lord Heriot Fayne, the said outcast.

This hero is given a basic motivation for a rebellion which doesn’t seem to be owing to a clash of ideas but rather on a sense of outrage at being neglected by his parents.

As to what goes on his head, perhaps not much does, as we only hear of it in crisis points of the novel; for instance, when falling in love with the heroine Eva he decides that he must reform, and at once. He paces about, thinking so hard that his face becomes haggard with the unaccustomed effort. After some mental and facial contortions, he decides that he must break away from his decadent companions and their habit of drinking hard, brawling in music halls and betting on racecourses and sets off on foot to earn his living for the first time as an itinerant musician.

As I have said in an earlier post, the country air and living with country folk appears to cause a moral change in him – after a few weeks he ‘feels a change’ and stops being bad.

So that’s it – that’s the thing to do with ruffianly young men, then! Set ‘em off on a healthful tramp in the countryside as semi tramps to earn a living as buskers. Well, it makes a change from suggesting a return to the use of national service or flogging.

Leaving aside the absurdities of this peculiar cure, what is interesting here is that this popular author gives us only occasional glimpses into the workings of Heriot Fayne’s brain – and here he may be wise, for the little we do see is hardly riveting. Though the character is described as having an ‘acute gaze’ which can assess the selfishness of Eva’s father in a glance, this strange penetration isn’t accompanied by any originality of thought or moral reflection.

In fact, while Vulpius’ earlier Rinaldo Rinaldini can hold his own when discussing a moral conundrum we may be sure that Garvice’s Heriot Fayne would come out with a lot of clichés in which any idea of questioning accepted conventional moral standards would find no place. Eva is good and pure; Lord Fayne has been a naughty boy and disgraced his family; he can only find moral redemption through reverting to some state of innocence and going in for dramatic episodes of heroic self-sacrifice.

Meanwhile, Eva, though in no need of moral redemption, is also busy sacrificing herself like anything for her selfish father in agreeing to marry a man she doesn’t like, but again we only see the external symptoms of this – her white face, her dropping her head on her arms, her occasional fainting fits. As we are told she is already perfect, there can be no development of her character – except possibly in her understanding of evil in the machinations of the scheming villain which are exposed at the ending.

The moral reformation of villainous characters then, is a complex issue and difficult to portray convincingly. Did their rebellion against moral norms come as part of a general – and very likely, commendable – rebellion against convention and hypocritical moral standards? Is their violence – or their collusion in violence – any worse than that of their respectable peers? If the wicked rogue’s wish to reform is bound up with falling in love with a Conventional Good Angel, surely it must be the beginning of a long and gradual process?

The instant desire for moral transformation of Garvice’s flawed heroes (Heriot Fayne is only one of many) through the love of an innocent girl is highly unconvincing. Mr B’s moral transformation seems to have an equally questionable basis, while Henry Crawford disgraces himself by falling in love with an innocent girl and wanting to change but only making a nominal effort to reform before falling by the wayside. Shame on the cad! That did disappoint me; I would have loved to see the brilliant Jane Ausen writing about the successful moral transformation of a rogue.

Those, anyway, were some ideas that influenced me when I had my own villainous hero – Émile Dubois, decide that after meeting his ‘Goody Two Shoes’ Sophie de Courcy, he will ‘put his horrible past behind him’. It is a very difficult subject to approach with humour and a lack of sentimentality, even in a Gothic novel – but, don’t think I don’t love a story where a bad person reforms, as I do – it’s just that I like it, even in a Gothic novel, to be credible.

By the end of the story (after a striking relapse as he briefly turns into a semi monster) he has progressed far enough under the influence of ‘his angel’ Sophie to suggest to his companion in arms Georges that it is ‘High time we reformed – comparatively.’

I am a great believer in the ability of love to transform lives and to transcend social barriers of all sorts – but change for almost everyone is generally a gradual process, however dramatic the moment when a person resolves to make the effort to make that change.

So, it did seem to me that even in writing a Gothic romance a certain scepticism about how quickly the worship of a Good Angel can reform a scoundrel was in order.

Emile, of course, is only ever ‘seen from the outside’ (I used that ploy to make him the more sinister as a scheming semi monster in the middle of the novel). As a human he is generally truthful – except for to the forces of law and order –
the reader can assume that he usually says what he means and means what he says – and he his quite sincere in wanting his good angel to reform him. Why, as an adolescent in ‘Ravensdale’ (the novel I’m currently writing) he even tells his cousin Reynaud Ravensdale that he intends to allow just such a ‘Miss Goody Two Shoes’ as Sophie to help him to undertake his reform, and in the meanwhile he owes it to this paragon to be as rascally as possible, so that she will be cheated of none of the credit for his transformation…

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