‘O wha’s like my Johnnie,
Sae leish, sae blithe, sae bonnie?
He’s foremost ‘mang the mony
Keel lads o’ coaly Tyne;
He’ll set or row sae tightly
Or, in the dance sae sprightly,
He’ll cut and shuffle slightly,
‘Tis true, were he nae mine.’
‘He wears a blue bonnet,
Blue bonnet, blue bonnet,
He wears a blue bonnet
A dimple in his chin.
And weel may the keel row,
The keel row, the keel row,
And weel may the keel row
That my laddie’s in.’
Curse it, having a lot of trouble trying to enlarge that image. It doesn’t want to co-operate…
I’ve quoted ‘Weel may the Keel Row’ because it serves as a sort of signature tune for the character I want to talk about in the novel through which he swaggers.
I’m really going to enjoy writing this one as I’ve been long intrigued by the character I am going to use as an example of a fictitious character who is a fascinating instance of both the round and the flat (to use E M Forster’s terms for depiction of character).
I can think of a number of examples of this, and of flat characters who sometimes stray into the territory of the rounded ones – James Bond’s brief period of humanity is one in popular fiction – but few whose ambiguity has so intrigued me; and I have never known whether this was intended by the author or at least partly or a result of conflicts between her views of the people on whom she based this character.
Wait for it – yes, it’s none other than Charley Kinraid from Elizabeth Gaskell’s none too well known historical novel set in Whitby during the French Revolutionary Wars, ‘Sylvia’s Lovers.’.
Well, if this doesn’t inspire a comment from my friend Thomas Cotterill, who completely disagreed with me about the fellow’s moral integrity, nothing will…
To start on a humorous note, someone on Goodreads complained that the title of that story belied the content; well, this is ‘lovers’ in the old sense, no Naughty Naughty Tut Tut stuff would be permitted in the UK during her era, when Zola’s novels were regarded with horror.
However, within the perimeters of Victorian prudery, E Gaskell makes a good job of hinting at the aura of physical attraction and macho appeal exuded by Charley Kinraid, the ‘boldest Speksioneer (Chief Harpooner) in the Greenland Seas’.
When we first meet this character he’s acting as a hero, defending his crew from a press gang acting outside it’s remit (as they invariably did; there was no other way to impress enough men into the navy). He gets into a shoot out with them and is kicked aside (ouch!) and left for dead. However, when they’ve gone, his captain and a surgeon manage to revive him, and this the first of many lucky escapes he has during a rise to top which seems almost as inevitable as a cork rising in water.
The impressionable Sylvia first sees him at the funeral of his friend Darley, who wasn’t so lucky. Kinraid still looks like an animated corpse from blood loss, but so impressed is she with his aura of heroism that she becomes infatuated with him anyway.
At this time he is rumoured to be romantically involved with either one or both of his cousins, the daughters of a neighbouring farm to Sylvia’s own, and a lady killer generally (when not looking like an animated corpse).
During his convalescence, Kinraid takes to calling – supposedly to talk and drink with Sylvia’s father, while he just happens to impress Sylvia with his sailor’s tales of dangerous adventure and strange experiences at sea. He gets back his vigour and good looks, with his flashing dark eyes and dark hair curling in ringlets and goes away with no apparent regrets. Sylvia dreams about his stories, but one gets the impression that she would like to be an adventurer herself as much as she would like to win the love of the man who told her the stories.
Chancing to meet Sylvia at a party over a year later on a visit to those cousins with whom he has done so much flirting– one of whom thinks herself engaged to him – the impulsive Kinraid ‘is enough in love with her beauty and pretty modest ways’ to pay serious court to her.
Kinraid is mostly depicted ‘from the outside’ and we only rarely get access to his mental processes. These don’t, for a man with a gaze ‘penetrating and intelligent’ seem to be remarkable for either depth or originality, no doubt showing that he is a quick witted, bold man of action rather than a deep judge of character or one given to pondering on the human condition.
After Sylvia leaves the party, Kinraid, ‘…Accustomed to prompt decision, resolved that she and no other should be his wife. Accustomed to popularity among women, and well versed in the signs of their incipient liking for him, he anticipated no difficulty in winning her.’
He seems to have no idealistic notions regarding his choice of wife, and for the perceptive reader, this all fits in with the character of the emotionally superficial Lothario given to him by Hepburn’s workmate Coulson, who’s sister supposedly died of a broken heart after being jilted by Kinraid: –
‘He came after my sister for better nor two year…and then my master saw another girl, that he liked better…and tha’ he played the same game wi’, as I’ve heard tell.’
Sylvia’s ready acquiescence in her hero’s wooing of her certainly makes an interesting change from novels where the hero is attracted by the sheer challenge of winning over an indifferent heroine.
Kinraid is perceptive in his dealings with people; when she refuses him a kiss as a forfeit at a party game, and then regrets the snub and sits tearfully by the fireside, he follows her out of the room and soon gets that kiss.
Soon Sylvia and Kinraid are secretly engaged. Sylvia’s interest in Kinraid torments her devoted cousin Philip Hepburn. He is the only person to see Kinraid press ganged on a deserted beach and hears Kinraid’s plea for him to pass on to Sylvia that he will come back to marry her.
Instead, her keeps quiet and marries her himself, and on the consequences of this shabby trick the plot of the novel hinges.
Kinraid is away for three years; first he’s an impressed man, but then, resuming his heroics, he’s promoted to warrant officer, and following a daring raid on a French port, is imprisoned for many months. Finally he escapes to be raised to the rank of Lieutenant at the special recommendation of Sir Sydney Smith.
Hurrying back to renew his court to Sylvia, he finds that having been duped by her cousin about his supposed drowning, she’s married him instead and they now have a baby.
The three meet in a fine piece of melodrama, but Sylvia refuses to leave her baby, and Kinraid leaves in fury.
Before this, however, the author gives him some speeches that
as Graham Handley points out, are trite and more suited to a sailor in an action story than in this complex novel: –
‘Oh, thou false heart!…If ever I trusted woman, I trusted you, Sylvia Robson…Leave that damned fellow to repent of the trick he played an honest sailor…’
His own history of fickle dealings with other woman doesn’t decrease his outrage at this betrayal, and he leaves in high dudgeon on the mail cart.
However, Sylvia, having renounced Hepburn and mourning her loss of Kinraid, is to hear later that Kinraid is married to another woman within a few months of this dramatic parting from her. Though he had sworn more than once that he would marry her or not at all, he has cheerfully wedded a very eligible, pretty and superficial heiress with the ridiculous name of ‘Clarinda Jackson’ (I borrowed a version for my own Claribelle Johnson in ‘Aleks Sager’s Daemon’), who worships him.
After doing some more heroics at Acre (where by a wild co-incidence he meets Hepburn, who turns hero too and saves his former rival’s life) Kinraid is promoted to Captain and having once again survived serious gunshot wounds without any lingering effects on his health, he again faces a glowing future.
Clarinda Kinraid, happening to be staying with Kinraid’s old flame cousin Bessy Corney (who married someone else on Kinraid’s disappearance) decides to call on the Hepburn household to see if Philip is back and to thank him. From her easy air, it is obvious she knows nothing of Sylvia’s old relationship with her ‘dear Captain’ (Kinraid has been promoted again). One assume that neither has he troubled to tell her about his relationship with Bessy, who seems to keep discreetly silent about both matters.
After their passionate parting, and having taken a vow against Hepburn on her former lover’s behalf, the unlucky Sylvia is outraged at ‘The conviction, strengthened by every word that happy, loving wife had uttered that Kinraid’s old, passionate love for herself had faded away and vanished utterly.’
One of the few times when Kinraid’s thoughts are revealed is when he lies wounded at Acre. Here, they are as predictable as those he had at the party, and perhaps this is why Gaskell reveals them so rarely.
Of course, this may be a true depiction of how a wounded soldier’s confused senses may wander, but they seem, in contrast to those of the injured Hepburn on his own deathbed at the end of the story, to have no spiritual component at all (though we know from a throwaway comment of Kinraids’ in the course of his tales at Sylvia’s farm that he is no agnostic). Neither does he go in for any soul searching over what Jane Spencer calls his ‘complacent view of his past’: –
‘(He had) thoughts of other days, of cool Greenland seas…of grassy English homes…the unwonted tears came to his eyes as he thought of the newly-made wife in her English home, whom might never know that he died thinking of her.’
He mourns her loss of such a prize as himself with all sincerity.
Kinraid I found a puzzling character. He appears to be a hero. He certainly looks like one and is physically brave – but the same is true of Heathcliff and Lovelace, two of the worst villains in English Literature . Of course, Kinraid is nothing like as bad as either, but he does , apparently largely unintentionally, cause a fair amount of grief for various people and neither is it easy to see him as a hero except in the military sense.
To me he comes across as a superficial opportunist, with what even Andrew Saunders, a great admirer of his, terms ‘limits to his loyalty’. In some ways his fickle treatment of various love interests indicates this early. He has no scruples about changing allegiances when the old ones are of no further use to him.
Critics who point out his faithfulness to Sylvia during his three years away after his impressment as evidence of loyalty overlook that as an impressed man he would hardly get leave, and as he spent most of his time after his promotion to warrant officer in a French prison, his being faithful to Sylvia during this time wasn’t very difficult. However, once he begins to adjust to his new life as an officer, he aims high above his illiterate farmer’s daughter on the social scale.
As a Captain, of course, just like Horatio Hornblower, Kinraid, who once shot dead two press gang members, would have routinely to use their services to get enough of a crew to sail. It is very ironic that the man who might have been hanged for mutiny as the rebellious Specksioneer – had the navy known of his survival – later finds glory through them and becomes a naval hero.
As Graham Handley remarks in his notes on the book, Kinraid is a puzzle; various accounts of his history conflict, and only so much of the character is revealed. This was a clever achievement of Gaskell, as a partly unknown, ambiguous character is fascinating.
In a previous post dealing with the recycling of a character type, I have suggested myself that Gaskell may not have known her own mind about the character and that may be one reason for her leaving the options open about his history. As Jane Spencer points out, about the time that she was writing this novel Gaskell’s daughter broke off a brief engagement with a military man who seems to have been charming but unreliable; this may have been a factor in her creation of this character.
But Kinraid is also a sailor, and Gaskell had an abiding respect for the Royal Navy and a love for sailors as her own beloved, entertaining and yarn spinning lost brother had been one.
He had been a merchant navy officer, supposedly disappeared mysteriously on a trip; I have sometimes wondered if some aspects of this story weren’t concealed by his family, but however this may be, Kinraid and his earlier incarnation, the charming Frederick Hale in ‘North and South’ are both rebels who defy authority and who go on to find success. They also are embodiments of the return of a lost sailor motif which turns up not only in these novels, but also in Cranford. This is easy to define in our own post-Freudian days as wish fulfilled in Gaskell’s writing.
Kinraid gets a better fate than he probably deserves if his apparent opportunism is intended and if only half of the stories about his callous treatment of his former girlfriends are true.
This is in line with Gaskell’s religious conviction that the emotionally superficial and morally unscrupulous flourish in this Vale of Tears, whereas true justice is a matter for divine judgement beyond the grave. It also fits with her wish to write a happy ending for her brother’s own tragic story.
What I find undeniable is that a fairly flat character – almost a stereotypical brave, macho, handsome, hard-drinking womanizing hero type is given an extra depth by a certain ambiguity in his portrayal.
In conclusion, for any who might be interested in my take on the treatment of the romantic theme in this novel here’s a link to my own F Word article written a few years ago.