Drama and Melodrama in Some Classic Victorian Novels

 

A Tale of Two Cities
Sidney Carton looks seedy and jealous in this depiction of the back garden of Dr Manette’s house in the then leafy and breezy Soho.

     When writing tales of terror, it can be difficult to keep balanced along the thin line between the terrifying and the ludicrous – as I have commented in a previous post ‘The Thin Line Between the Gothic and the Absurd’.

     It is nearly as difficult at times to maintain that balance between drama and melodrama. Perhaps much of that relies upon sufficient psychological motivation in moments of dramatic tension within a novel.   

     This seems particularly true when one is reading novels reflecting and appealing to the tastes of another age – or anyway, popular taste, as there are always exceptions.  

     Dickens’ bursts of sentimentality are of course notorious, and presumably the general readership of his time found his emotive scenes genuinely touching. For instance, there is the life and death of the son of Charles Darney and Lucie Mannette in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.

     This paragon would make Little Lord Fauntleroy seem realistic. Presumably, he is meant to reflect the qualities of his parents, as ideal a coupling of a pefect pair as you are likely to come across in a novel.

     This is his deathbed scene: – 

    ‘Even when there were sounds of sorrow among the rest, they were not harsh nor cruel. Even when golden hair, like her own, lay in a halo on a pillow round the worn face of a little boy, and he said, with a radiant smile, “Dear papa and mamma, I am very sorry to leave you both, and to leave my pretty sister; but I am called, and I must go!” Those were not tears all of agony that wetted his young mother’s cheek, as the spirit departed from her embrace that had been entrusted to it.’

     This is all the more extraordinary, as Dickens surely knew small children well, having ten of his own by his wife Catherine (oddly enough, and off topic, he held her solely accountable for having so many children, as if she had been guilty of a form of parthenogenesis).

     Presumably only Lucie Manette, who is depicted as an extreme of the domestic angel type Dickens so revered, could produce such a son as the one depicted here, and the one whom Sidney Carton sees in a vision before the guillotine.

   When this anti-hero finally rises to the role of hero and sacrifices himself for Charles Darnay by substituting himself in the cell for him, as he awaits his death he has a sublime vision, both of what will happen to France of the future, and of what will happen to the Darney family.

     As is so often the case with Dickens, the writing here in uneven, the sentimentality of the previous paragraph about the death of the Darnay son vying with the strong and evocative. That being so, I shall quote it extensively: – 

     ‘I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.
     ‘ I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace. I see the good old man, so long their friend, in ten years’ time enriching them with all he has, and passing tranquilly to his reward.
     ‘I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both.
     “I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.
     ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

         Sidney Carton’s career has often been ignoble, but his unrequited love for Lucie Manette is depicted as transforming his sordid life, making him as much the founder of an honoured dynasty as his alter ego Charles Darnay. This notion worked very well for the mid nineteenth century readers, while modern audiences are certainly more likely to question the likelihood of such an unrequited love inspiring nobility in a bitter, disillusioned drunkard such as Sidney Carton. Stlll, then as now, many readers are caught up in the idea.

     When I read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ myself, I thought that the whole treatment of Sidney Carton might be more convincing if the explanation for his bitterness and hopelessness was ever given, but it is not. He is just depicted as being that way, and to be pitied for it.

     Because of this shadowy depiction of this melancholy doppelganger of the romantically successful Charles Darnay, and the sentimental effusions which form part of the first parts of this peroration, it don’t work for me at least. Interestingly, the renowned last sentence does. We don’t really have to relate strongly to Sidney Carton to feel the strength of that.

     Perhaps this shallow portrayal of a seemingly complex character is to some extent typical of the psychological understanding of that age. Certainly, in Victorian literature generally, ignoble characters sometimes seem to be inspired by the influence of supposedly exemplary ones to behave with startling self abnegation.
220px-cc_no_06_a_tale_of_two_cities

     For instance, in George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ the heroine, Dorothea, comes across her by then devoted admirer Will Ladislaw and the married Rosamond Lydgate in what to that age would appear to be a ‘clandestine meeting’. She leaves, visibly upset. Will Ladislaw then reveals his passion for Dorothea, and instead of being offended (she had considered him an admirer of her own) Rosamond Lydgate says that she will make all right with her. She is seemingly so affected by Dortothea’s noble character that she is drawn out of her own vanity and self-centredness.

     I have to say that for me, this seems wildly improbable. The critic Quentin Anderson says that Rosamond, on finding that Ladislaw ‘thinks her of no account’ is ‘temporarily awed into a generosity which brings Ladislaw and Dorothea together.’

     This makes no sense to me; given that Rosamond thinks of Ladislaw as sophisticated in that he knows the world outside Middlemarch, why should the fact that he takes so dim a view of her inspire her to right things for him with Dorothea? Would she not be more likely to feel slighted by his outburst? It is not even as if he is an admirable character himself.  After all, he has no occupation or means of supporting himself, relying on inheriting from a man he professes to despise; this hardly puts him in the position to despise Rosamond Lydgate.

Middlemarch image

      On the question of a Victorian novel failing to hit the right note in a scene of dramatic tension, I can’t help use as a final example the confrontation between the former Sylvia Robson, her returned former lover Charley Kinraid and her husband Phillip Hepburn in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.

     Hepburn has concealed that he knew all along that Kinraid has been taken by the press gang, not drowned, as the rest of the community believe, has not passed on Kinraid’s message for her that he will return, and has married Sylvia himself, hoping that Kinraid is in fact, dead at sea.

     Both of the cheated lovers are of course, outraged. In this confrontation, the speeches of Sylvia and ‘the wretched guilty man’ are realistic. Those of Charley Kinraid, however, are not. The perceptive critic Graham Handley pinpoints the problem, which is that ‘Kinraid comes alive but fitfully’. Elizabeth Gaskell’s portrayal of him is always  uperficial.

    That is never so obvious as here. The critic goes on: ‘We have noted that Mrs Gaskell does not give him depth…but she does give him a number of trite phrases which would do well in the mouth of a straight adventure-story sailor. Here they ring false. “Oh, thou false heart!” “Leave that damned fellow to repent the trick he played an honest sailor” “I have frightened my poor love” – all these convey the feelings, but without the truth of expression that makes them real.’

     He asks Sylvia to leave with him, showing a naive (or possibly, professed) belief in his admiral’s ability to obtain her a divorce from Hepburn. ‘Your marriage shall be set aside, and we’ll be married again, all square and above board.’  Just then, as if on cue, the Hepburn’s baby cries, reminding Sylvia of someone she loves be#tter than her old lover.

     Kinraid, never normally reluctant to express himself or take the limelight, falls into complete silence while Sylvia gives a speech that involves her vow: – ‘I’ll never forgive yon man, or live with him as his wife again. All that’s done and ended.’ It finishes with her, ‘Kiss me once more. God help me, he’s gone!’

     This end to the scene is described by Graham HIndley as losing the vivid and believable quality of the earlier exchanges: – ‘Sylvia, in histrionic isolation, runs from the present to the past and back to the present again , while Kinraid utters no word of remonstrance to deflect her course. ..The effect is, like that of Kinraid’s words quoted earlier, a failure of truth.’