What Makes a Reader Empathise with a Lead Character is Often an Indefinable Combination of Things

Re-reading my favourite novel by Margaret Atwood, ‘Bodily Harm’, made me wonder, as I have done before, whether or not you have to identify strongly with the lead character to be really drawn in by a novel.
I like the main character, Renny Wilford, well enough – I like her courage, and her detached, cool humour. She is not an enthusiast (to use a wonderful eighteenth century term) about anything, but that is part of her appeal. Even in her relationship with her live in lover, Jake – who in fact stops either loving her or living with her as the back story progresses – there is this lack of intense commitment.
It is, of course, part of the interest of the plot that Renny stops being detached. Her terrible experiences in a gaol on a tiny Caribbean island as a suspected revolutionary (of all ironical charges) and the horrors she has seen as that hopeless revolutionary uprising is aborted, have changed her. Now such issues as the sort of jewellery it is chic to wear, or how to furnish your home on a budget economy no longer absorb her. Now she will write about what she has seen.
Still, like this lead character as I did, I didn’t strongly identify with her. I didn’t feel for her as I did for various other characters going through dramas far removed from my own experiences. Perhaps this was the author’s intention, that Renny, being detached herself, does not inspire strong identification in the reader?
For instance, I really felt for the female lead of Patrick Hamilton’s ‘The Slaves of Solitude’, the honourable Miss Roach, persecuted by a pair of closet Nazis in an English boarding house in the middle of World War II. I empathized  with Amelia, besotted wife of the insensitive George Osborn in ‘Vanity Fair’, for all  her sillness. Now I am re-reading ‘Ariadne’ by June Rachuy Brindle, and as before, I find myself wholly identified with the last matriarchal Queen of Ancient Crete in her struggle against the invasion of the patriarchs.
That last might be said to be wholly unsurprising – I am, after all, attracted by the matriarchal thesis and have never considered that it has been sufficiently disapproved, even if I have sadly never been a matriarchal queen. My sympathy with Miss Roach’s mental torture in the boarding house similarly may well come from my own experience of encounters with malevolent people with fascist sympathies, and foolish as Amelia may be, I did in fact elope myself as a teenager with my other half…
That must be a part of it. I don’t consider that this has anything to do with the vividness of the portrayal of the main character. Margaret Atwood’s portrayal of character is always superb, and Renny is more clearly drawn than many with whom I have identified far more intensely.
I tend to think that unfortunately for writers, it is largely a matter of chance whether or not a reader can strongly identify with a main, or indded, any character.
A writer can do his/her best to make a character sympathetic and interesting. The writer can give that character strong motivations, sympathetic weaknesses combined with admirable strengths, trying circumstances, not too much of a surfeit of admiration, etc – objectively,  according to the ‘How To’ writing books, that should result in a highly appealing character.
Still, finally, whether or no sh/e evokes empathy ino a reader depends on a whole lot of factors out of a writer’s control.
These include the reader’s frame of mind at the time of reading, his or her past experiences, his or her goals, attitudes, expectations, sense of humour, prejudices of all sorts, and a myriad of other factors; all these will define how s/he relates to that painstackingly defined lead character.
That is at once both an encouraging and discouraging thought.
Still, if you are like me, you don’t necessarily have to identify strongly with the lead character – or in fact, any of them – to enjoy a well written and skillfully executed story.
And while what constitutes a well crafted and skillfully executed story is also partly a matter of taste, perhaps it is less so than is the question of finding deep empathy with characters.

More on Antagonists: Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ and the Eponymous Lovers as Antagonists.

SL old cover

Following on from my recent post about antagonists, it is interesting how that role is often played by an inhuman character, and can even be an impersonal force. Sometimes, the identity of the antagonist can even appear to shift from one character to another: one formerly not perceived as an antagonist can become one as regards the protagonist’s aims and goals.

How far this is deliberate obviously varies. In older novels the antagonist, of course, was largely seen as ‘the villain’ and was as often as not fairly obvious, like Count Dracula. Perhaps this is because there weren’t exactly a lot of ‘how to’ books on writing going about in Victorian times.

Perhaps this is because there weren’t exactly a lot of ‘how to’ books on writing going about in Victorian timesThese days, all writers are far more aware of the mechanics of plot, character development, the necessity of a strong antagonist, and so on.

The shifting role of who is the antagonist is particularly intriguing in one of my favourite classic Victorian stories, Elizabeth Gakelll’s Sylvia’s Lovers. How far this is intentional I find it hard to assess: perhaps the author did it unconsciously.

In the beginning, the antagonist comes across clearly as an impersonal force, the use and abuse of the press gang to recruit sailors by force to fight in the French Revolutionary Wars. In depicting how this changes, I can’t make this point without detailing the plot at various points as I discuss the antagonist aspect. I hope regular readers who have read other articles about this favourite novel of mine will bear with me.

In the second chapter we see a press gang taking the crew of a whaler as it returns from Greenland. A riot breaks out amongst the townsfolk of Monkshaven (Whitby), then a busy whaling port. The passionate, untamed and pretty teenage Sylvia Robson reacts with violent longing to join in the riot. Her shopman cousin Philip Hepburn, who is anything but her idea of a man, regards that as ridiculous in a young girl. His own view is that ‘it’s the law and you can’t do anything about it’.

It was not legal for the press gang to impress whalemen, who were supposedly protected by law from their encroachments. Least of all was it legal to impress them as they returned for six months’ away in the Greenland Seas. In practice these regulations were ignored: any Naval captain was expected to make up his crew with few scruples and much expediency.

For instance, In the Hornblower series, Horatio Hornblower as an naval lieutenant and then as a captain knows, and quietly endorses, the press gang working for his ship taking ‘country bumpkins’ who have obviously never been near the sea in their lives. Its remit is limited to ‘seagoing men’ and I believe, ‘vagabonds’, but this bending of the rules is seen as an unfortunate necessity: without flouting the regulations a captain could not get enough of a crew to leave port. This is a fact to be taken into account when we come to the later career of the gallant rebel, Sylvia’s love object Charley Kinraid.

What can be termed ‘the inciting incident’ of the story, which sets off Sylvia’s infatuation for the Specksioneer Kinraid , is caused by his showy heroic defiance of the gang who come to impress the crew of The Good Fortune.

This tale is recounted to the impressionable Sylvia and her family by the tailor Donkin when he visits their farm. He recounts how Kinraid stood over the hatches, armed with a whaling knife and two pistols, and declares: ‘He has two good pistols, and summat besides, and he don’t care for his life, being a bachelor, but all below are married men, you see, and he’ll put an end to the first two chaps who come near the hatches…’

Stirring heroism, indeed. He does just that with the first two who approach, and for my own part I had to feel for those men, unscrupulous or not, when they were ordinary sailors themselves, and under orders to obey or face hanging for mutiny.

In fact, there is another single man in the crew below, Kinraid’s friend Darley. He does however, have a bedridden sister, though alsi a father living and working for the Vicar, so perhaps that is the reason he is seen as having dependants.

The gang shoot down Kinraid and kick him aside for dead, and fire into the hold, killing Darley, and taking off the others.

Sylvia is agog to hear if Kinraid will survive his wounds. In fact, He is lucky that he was ‘kicked aside for dead’, as if he hadn’t been asssumed to have been killed, he would have been tried for mutiny. She goes to enquire after him of his cousins, the Corneys, and at the same time, arranges to go to Darley’s funeral with Molly Corney. Here, she meets Kinraid, whom two sailor friends have carried up the famous steps to the church. Although he looks like a living corpse, she is still very taken with him, ‘Full of shy admiration of the nearest approach to a hero that she had ever seen.’

Few young men could resist the lure of such a pretty admirer, and when her father, Daniel Robson, himself a former whaler, invites Kinraid to come and visit them, he takes up the invitation and impresses the girl with tales of sea adventures and smuggling. Besides, as he recovers, he regains his looks, with his waving dark hair, flashing dark eyes, and equally flashing white teeth. He is reputedly, besides, the ‘boldest Specksioneer on the Greenland Seas’ (poor whales; nobody, not even the humane author, seemed to think of them). He is generally a wholly fitting object for Sylvia’s girlish admiration.


Meanwhile, she has another, largely silent but dogged admirer in her cousin Hepburn. He has a killjoy attitude to harmless fun, having been raised by puritanically devout people who disapprove of all festivity and high spirits, even in the young. Alice Rose, with whom he lives along with his fellow shopman William Coulson, was once a pretty, blooming girl who insisted on marrying the wicked whaler Jack Rose; she is now so embittered that she regards any worldly ambition as futile.

William Coulson’s late sister Annie was once courted by Kinraid back in Newcastle for a couple of years, but he broke off things when he saw another girl he preferred. Rumour has it that after that, he moved on from that girl in turn when he saw yet another he liked better. Annie Coulson subsequently died within six months, and Coulson puts it down to a broken heart.

Besides being solemn, Philip has an unprepossessing appearance with an indoor complexion and a long upper lip. He is wholly tame and seemingly lacking in masculinity in comparison to the dashing Kinraid. He has a blind spot about his obsessive infatuation with Sylvia; he cannot see that his plan to win the lively, ignorant, thoughtless girl through rising to become the owner of the drapers where he works, and through teaching her to read, is, to say the least, ill thought out.

It is worth pointing out here that Sylvia seems as infatuated at this point with adventures in the Greenland Seas as she does with the man Charley Kinraid himself. Hilary Schoer makes the astute point that Sylvia, as a girl with a restricted and largely domestic role, cannot aspire to such adventures herself. Though she dreams of these, she is compelled to sublimate by playing the female role and falling in love with the man who personifies those adventuers in her eyes.

Kinraid goes back to sea, but fifteen months later he attends a New Year’s party to which Hepburn escorts Sylvia, and on this visit, he courts her passionately – to the annoyance of both Hepburn and Kinraid’s cousin Bessy Corney, who regards herself as unofficially engaged to him. It is typical of Kinraid’s extrovert character that he finishes up the New Year festivities by dancing a hornpipe. This is in fact what Wiley Ben does at a festivity in Adam Bede, but while his performance is depicted as ludicrous, no doubt Kinraid’s is executed with style.

Before he sails to Greenland, Kinraid comes to ask Sylvia to marry him with suitable directness and dash: ‘Ever since I saw yo’ in the corner of the kitchen, sitting crouching behind my uncle, I as good as swore I’d have yo’ for my wife, or never wed at all.’ She cannot believe her luck. When the next day, Hepburn turns up to tell her of Kinraid’s reputation as a ‘light o’ love’ and the story of Annie Coulson she dismisses it as a ‘back biting tale’.

The next day Heburn walks along the beach the seven miles to Hartlepool, it being the most direct route (It is an interesting comment on how used to walking people were in this era that Hepburn, who follows a despised and sedentary occupation, does this with ease). To his dismay, he sees Kinraid walking ahead of him on his way back to Newcastle. By a bitter irony (or a karmic test), Hepburn is the only witness when Kinraid is taken by a press gang.

He leaves a message with Hepburn for Sylvia. Outrageously, after hearing more talk of Kinraid’s past behaviour with women in a Newcastle pub, Hepburn decides against telling her the truth. He will not let Sylvia make her own mistakes. The community at Monkshaven, finding Kinraid’s hat washed up on the shore, assume he has somehow been drowned, and Hepburn remains silent. Whatever the reader might think of Charley Kinraid’s character, this an appalling piece of treachery.

At this point in the novel, from the point of view of Sylvia as protagonist, Hepburn largely takes over from the press gang as the antagonist, in that he is the chief block to her achieving her wishes.

While Sylvia mourns Kinraid and the happiness she is sure she would have shared with him, Hepburn – helped by dread, impersonal forces when the foolish Daniel Robson is hanged for leading a crowd to burn the press gang’s headquarters – continues to act to thwart the heroine’s natural inclinations. His aunt Bell Robson loses her mind under the strain. Sylvia and the labourer Kester struggle on to try and keep the farm going, but now the dispirited Sylvia gives up on the fight. Kester urges her, ‘Dunnot go and marry a man as thou’s noane taken wi’, and another, as is most like for t’b e dead, but who, mebbe, is alive, havin’ a pull on thy heart.’

That is exactly what Sylvia does. She feels imprisoned in the house behind the shop in town. It is a dismal marriage for her; she is unable to forget Kinraid. She and Hepburn are unsuited.

It is never made clear whether she is actually physically indifferent to him or whether she is actively repelled by him. As a respectable Victorian writer, Gaskell would have considered it wholly inappropriate to make this explicit, or even to dwell too much on it. Possibly because of this, it is possible to read too much into the fact that one of the chapters in the first volume is called ‘Attraction and Repulsion’ – the said ‘repulsion’ may reflect more on the behaviour of iron and magnets than anything.

This is the period of Hepburn’s greatest success in both his working life and his personal life. Still, he finds that marriage to the now quiet and docile Sylvia a disappointment; he misses the old lively one. He remains the antagonist as far as Sylvia’s goals are concerned, save for her having the baby Bella, which is an endless source of delight to her.

Then, of course, Charley Kinraid returns. He is now a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, having been promoted for his participation in Sir Sidney Smith’s adventures. While Sylvia and Kinraid’s indignation and disgust at Hepburn’s dishonesty are ferocious. Unfortunately, I have to say – slightly off topic – that part of the writing here is absurd in some places, if tragic in others.

For instance: ‘This is Kinraid come back again to wed me. He is alive; he has never been dead…’ Well, he wouldn’t exactly be likely to have been dead and then alive, would he? That doesn’t tend to happen in this world with ordinary mortals. Then there are Kinraid’s own speeches, which have a stereotypical, cardboard flavour about them: ‘Take that!…Leave that damned fellow to repent the trick he paid an honest sailor.’

Anyway, although she refuses to leave with Kinraid, Sylvia swears an oath never to forgive Hepburn or to live with him as his wife again. Hepburn, overcome with shame, packs a few possessions and runs away to join the army. He has the idea that if he can return as a hero too, she might forgive him. Presumably, Sylvia does not give any thought to Kinraid’s certain role in raising press gangs now he is a naval officer himself, as she keeps her high opinion of him. At the Siege of Acre Hepburn comes across a wounded Kinraid (this man really is indestructable) and rescues him. However, shortly afterwards, he is horribly disfigured by an explosion. Unfitted for service and unrecognisable, he drifts home to live in a state of semi starvation.

Meanwhile, Sylvia has learnt some disturbing news. Within seven months of their dramatic parting, Kinraid has married someone else, a pretty, superficial heiress. Now Sylvia is humiliated, indignant against Kinraid, mortified that he has been able to forget her so quickly and replace her with someone else. She bitterly says, ‘I’m speaking like a woman,  like a woman as finds out she’s been cheated by men  as she trusted, and has no help for it.’  She tells Hester Rose, ‘Those as  one thinks t’most on, forgets one soonest.’ Sylvia may not be cerebral; but she clearly sees that both men, through their vastly differing temperements, have failed to keep faith with her.

I have often been puzzled by the depiction of Charley Kinraid.  He is almost always depicted externally, and he is not, in fact, in the novel very much, though he has such a catastrophic effect on the lives of the others. Graham Handley suggests that this element of mystery is a deliberate ploy on Elizabeth Gaskell’s part to make the character more intriguing, for when the reader is given access to his thoughts, they are not very interesting. Perhaps it is significant that when he thinks himself to be dying at the Seiege of Acre, he pities his ‘new made wife’ for losing him.

As Arthur Pollard remarks, ‘ It might be said that Kinraid is hardly individualised enough to carry the weigh the part he is given… On Kinraid’s return there seems to be a certain inadequacy in his response, a conventional theatrical quality…Finally, however, he shows that he really is just conventional. By marrying the superficial woman we hear about, he is shown to be superficial himself, as superficial as some people said he was and the reader has at times suspected.’

This is an astute approach of the author’s. Now, Sylvia experiences disillusionment with the man she has idolised for years. ‘I think I’ll niver call him Kinraid agin.’ If Hepburn has broken the first commandment in worshipping Sylvia, she has done the same with Kinraid.

At the end of the story Sylvia is reconciled with Hepburn, who has done some more heroics in rescuing their daughter from the waves.  To some extent, he has changed places with Kinraid in her eyes. Now, in an odd reversal of roles, he is the wounded, corpse like hero.  Previously, Hepburn formed a human barrier between Sylvia and the fulfilment of her dream – marriage to Charley Kinraid.  Now it seems to her that she has discovered her mistake about Kinraid’s shallowness too late. In a revulsion of feeling,  she sees her long infatuation with him as having served as a barrier to any chance of happiness with Hepburn, even though her cousin did marry her under false pretences. She even excuses Hepburn’s former treachery: ‘Thou thought he was faitthless and fickle, and so he were.’  Whatever the truth of that, she loses them both.

Overall, as some modern critics have argued, Sylvia cannot make a right choice between her eponymous lovers, as neither of them has shown himself worthy of her trust. Neither could be a satisfactory partner to her in the long run. Kinraid is handsome and dynamic but superficial and opportunistic. If Hepburn had behaved honourably, passed on his message, and Sylvia had duly married Kinraid on his return, she would certainly have been disillusioned fairly soon.  Hepburn is deeply devoted but plain looking and dismal  and  selfishly keeps Sylvia from making her own mistakes through his obsession with her. He can only be unselfishly loving at the end of his life.

Thus, arguably, both male leads can be said also to play the part of antagonists regarding Sylvia’s happiness; Hepburn through his imprisoning devotion, Kinraid through being a false idol.

I was flattered that someone had made a meme out of my ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ summary on social media. The problem is, that I can’t enlarge the copy I took of it enough to maake it legible, so I will quote it instead:

‘Philip Hepburn worships Sylvia Robson, and finds dishonour; Sylvia Robson worships Charley Kinraid, and finds dissilusionment. Charley Kinraid worships himself, and finds a wife who agrees with him and a career in the Royal Navy.’

Cardboard Characters, Lovable, Rounded Characters, Larger Than Life Characters,and Mere Ciphers: How Sympathetic Must a Character Be to Keep You Reading?

Well, every Austen reader knows what scene this depicts. ‘She is tolerable,but not handsome enough to tempt me…’

My PC – which groaned and collapsed –  is finally working again (looks about nervously, scared to tempt fate). Someone has even offered me  an unwanted laptop. Incredibly, I’ve never had one, and I am terrified by the look of those Ipads.

Anyway, in my last post, I was talking about my new fledged writer friend being upset at the savagery of a one star review (though she felt a bit better when I showed some of the fine specimens I have come by). Readers of this blog might remember that the main criticism was that her book was ‘Boring!!!’

The second front was opened over the issue of the characters, who according to this reviewer, were both unsympathetic and unbelievable, in fact, so like a lot of walking cardboard cut outs, that it was impossible for the reader to care what became of the lot of ‘em.

While the image of a lot of cardboard cut out characters stalking through the pages of a story is intriguing material for a fantasy story – I must give one on those lines a go, sometime – those concluding side swipes obviously cut my notice writer colleague to the quick.

This is clearly the last thing that a writer – who has probably spent hours making notes on background details on the past life of those characters, to fill them out in her/his mind – wants to hear. Well, everyone’s idea of a sympathetic or believable character is different – some people even find Heathcliff sympathetic and believable (well, so do I, having the psychiatric treatment he so clearly needs)  but it did make me mull over how far it is necessary to like the characters in a story, in order to enjoy it.

Obviously, and unfortunately, if a reader both thinks the plot is dull and the characters  uninteresting, then there isn’t very much to hold the attention. Yet, as I said last week, and as I pointed out to the writer in question (just call me Polyanna) that as the reviewer  also maintained that she kept reading to the bitter end, something obviously did hold her attention, even if it was how much she hated the characters and the plot, so all was not lost. As I said in my first post, if someone keeps on reading, however much s/he hates what you’ve written, then I count that as a victory.

How much sympathetic characters matter depends a lot, obviously,  on genre. If you are writing some traditional type murder story where you are going to bump off a lot of the characters, then it’s probably best for the reader’s peace of mind if s/he doesn’t get too fond of them. Perhaps that is why most of the characters in traditional, ‘country house murder’ Agatha Christie type detective stories are like a lot of walking stereotypes, often deliberately made hateful.

If, as Colonel Blimp is holding forth about Young People Today and Hanging and Flogging from the depths of his armchair in his club, his face a fine shade of puce, and  all his captive audience suddenly see him snatch at this throat and gargle, dropping his glass of vintage port, nobody is going to feel much outrage.

All the interest lies in the intellectual puzzle: was it his Estranged Wife who poisoned the port? Was it his nephew, the Dastardly Young Heir (entailed property, you see), who is rumoured to have Anarchistic Tendencies? Or was it the Colonel’s daughter, who has been kept at home in dowdy clothes and quietly besotted by her cousin these ten years?  Or was it the Waitress, whose mother he Ruined thirty years ago? I just wrote that off the top of my head, and no prizes for guessing that of course it was the last.

On mystery and detective stories, the Sherlock Holmes stories are, of course, notoriously well written. But the secondary characters are necessarily, just a series of ciphers. There isn’t space for anything more  in a short story, even if the Victorian short story was generally far longer than one for a magazine today. There is the Spirited Governess, the Unimaginative Shopkeeper, the Dastardly Stepfather, the Haughty Unbending Aristocrat, and one of the nicest characters – the Gallant, Dashing Gentleman Sailor –in ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange’, my favourite.  I do like a love story as part of an adventure or mystery story – but I am wandering from the point.

Conan Doyle sometimes called Sherlock Holmes ‘a reasoning machine’. This is not doing justice to the subtlety of his creation. In ‘A Study in Scarlet’ when Watson and Holmes first start sharing rooms, Watson does create a list of the areas of Holmes’ supposed areas of knowledge and others where he supposedly shows a startling lack of it. For instance,  he claims not to know that the earth revolves round the sun, which I think we may assume was a joke at the expense of the sometimes credulous Watson. Later on, Conan Doyle ignored – or possibly, even forgot about – this list, much as he forgot about the location of Watson’s wound by the time of, ‘The Sign of the Four’.

Thus, while Holmes’ knowledge of literature is supposedly nil, he sometimes makes remarks on quite abstruse literary figures, for instance, his cynical (and  unfortunately, true, at least for women as sex roles stand) quote at the end of  ‘A Case of Identity’: ‘“There is danger for him who taketh a tiger cub, and danger also in whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.” There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.’

Then again, nobody seems to expect the characters in macho war stories to be anything but stereotypes. If they developed scruples about killing the enemy  or something stupid like that, it would spoil everything for the readership, so none of that.

Dracula climbing down the wall of his castle, from a 1916 edition of the work.

Then again, as another writer friend of mine pointed out, in ‘Dracula’ (I think that was Mari Biella) while Count Dracula and his adversary Van Helsing are strongly drawn characters, the supporting cast comprising Mina and Jonathan Harker and her ex-pupil Lucy and her three admirers are very thinly drawn. However,  this doesn’t detract from the readers enjoyment of the story. The two main opponents have so much personality that there is no need for the others to need more than a few strokes of the pen.

That modern readers we require sophisticated and consistent characterisation from authors at all, shows how far our study, or perhaps, our introversion regarding human character has progressed since, say, the Bronze Age ‘Iliad’ or even the Mediaeval Arthurian Legends, when the characters often behave wholly inconsistently.

I suppose, though, it must be conceded that while most of the characters in these lasting stories (as distinct from the indistinguishable war hero types) are ciphers, they are carried by the strongly drawn main ones much like an outstanding actor supporting a while cast of mediocrities.

It is also certainly true that there are genres where characterisation is all important. This is true of most so-called ‘women’s fiction’ and is certainly true of psychological thrillers  and has to be true of love stories.

Even with love stories, though (I’m distinguishing these from ‘romance’ which is a separate genre, with set expectations of an inevitable Happy Ever After Etc from the reader) it is still possible to enjoy the story, if you find just one of the main pair appealing. That is rather similar to how it is when a friend sets her heart on someone who you think is as dismal a choice as she could make. You still want her to win through, even if you know disillusionment lurks round the corner.

I would appear to be one of the few readers of Jane Austen who doesn’t like, or admire, Mr Darcy. In fact, I thought he was a priggish so-and-so, and I delighted in Jo Baker’s less than flattering picture of him in her brilliant novel ‘Longbourn . ’ I never could imagine how Elizabeth Bennett could be happy with a man with whom she couldn’t share a laugh, and I still can’t.

However, I did like Elizabeth Bennett. So if she had the poor taste to want the boring fellow (and no, no, I’m honestly not saying anything about the  Freudian implications of her joke about the sight of the grounds of Pemberley swaying her choice) , I wanted her to be able to win him, so I stayed interested until the end.

I mentioned dashing sailors earlier, and on this, and good or bad love choices, and on how it is still possible to fnd a book fascinating while not liking any of the main characters, I can think of at least one classic novel which has long intrigued me where I didn’t particularly like any of the main characters. In one, I actively disliked the two rival flawed heroes and wasn’t especially fond of the heroine. Yes, it’s – wait for it  – ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ by Elizabeth Gaskell, about which I have often written before.

But this post is getting too long.  So more of that next time.












Plasticity,Recycled Characters and Beloved Brothers: Part One: Elizabeth Gaskell

SL old cover

In an earlier post, I discussed how Elizabeth Gaskell used a particular character type – suely largely based on her lost and beloved brother – the charming, brave, dashing and handsome sailor, three times, in slightly different variations.

She used this character type possibly four times, if I count the returned sailor ‘Poor Peter’ in  ‘Cranford’ ( I have yet to read that).

This reuse of a character type, is in fact, is contrary to the cliam which WA Craik makes of the author n her 1970 work ‘Elizabeth Gaskell and the English Provincial Novel’, that this author never  revisits character types or situations. This is so untrue, that I was startled by it. It seems to show a startling lack of perception on the part of that biographer.

Having read some biographies of Elizbeth Gaskell, I am always struck by the fact that she never properly got over the disappearance of this brother, John,  who went unaccountably missing during a voyage to India (possiby onland: it is unclear).  He was in fact, fairly dissatisfied with life as a sailor immediately before he vanished, and his normally lively spirits were subdued, to the point, it seems, where he reported that he was nicknamed  by his shipmates ‘The silent man’.

I have sometimes wondered if th efamily knew more about the disappearance of John, and concealed it because it contained an element of social disgrace. Still,  here, I am spectulating without any solid basis for my suspicion, and merely because a  lie, or anyway, an obfustification,  plays a great part of the plot of several of the author’s novels;  further, it is connected with this character and his fate in at least two of them,  ‘North and South’ and  ‘Sylvia’s Lovers.’

The first incarnation of this character type, Will Wilson in ‘Mary Barton’ is guilesss and uncomplicated. He possesses the dark ringlets that Gaskell always gives to this Jolly Sailor Boy  type, has the liking to tell a good tall tale she always attributes to sailors besides, is upright and honourable and as his foster mother and aunt Alice says, ‘steady’.

Here, the character is essentially unevolved. Will has very little between his ears. He is, however, unfailing decisive and upright in his dealings. This is never more obvious as when, on hearing that he will be able to save Jem by acting as witness in his murder trial, he leaves his ship to join Mary, who has hired a boat to  pursue his ship up the Mersey to where it joins the Irish Sea.

He falls in love with Mary’s rather dull and prudish friend Margaret – who is suffering from a blindness brought on through early onset cataract – after hearing her sing, as her voice is spectacular.

At the end of the novel, the prim Margaret – whom we must hope as a wife and mother finds time to sing, as it is her one fascinating characteristic -and Will Wilson emigrate to the US, along with Jem Wilson and Mary. Margaret has had her sight restored by a successful operation (it is interesitng that cataract operations could be performed successfully so early) and all ends happily for the couple.

He is next used in her 1853  novel North and South. Here, Frederick Hale is wholly beguiling, possessed of startling good looks and  wide set, deep blue eyes besides the inevitable 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.

He has to live as an exile as he has parcipitated in a mutiny against an abusive captain.  Justice might be on his side, but the law is on that of the captain, and he is – in a realistic piece of plotting – never able to clear his name in England. Still, he does marry an heiress abroad, and has his own happy ending.

He is, in fact, the polar opposite of the male lead, the grim faced, emotionally repressed John Thornton.

This Honest Sailor character type next incarnation is a bit of a deterioration. In fact, intriguingly, I was put in mind by the anecdotes about the psychic projections, the thought forms, made by the Tibetian monks of old. They warned  Alexandra David-Neale that ‘the children of our mind’ can escape the control of the creator, and gradually become tainted with unpleasant qualities. If Frederick Hale is the apex of this character type,  Charley Kinraid, ‘The boldest Specksioneer on the Greenland seas’ may have superficial charm, but morally and in terms of emotional depths, he is certainy a deterioration.

He is  ringletted, handsome, charming, dashing and brave, but emotionally superficial and something of an opportunist.  I have written elsewhere about his evolution from rebellious Specksiioner who opposes the press gang to the point of killing off two of its members without a qualm, to Royal Navy Captain who must call on the press gang to muster his crew.

It is part of his indistructable nature (this man is made of Teflon) that he survives two serious woundings, being taken by th press gang, some years’ imprisonment in France and various battles, to be vigorous and cheeful in the company of his superficial, sheltered wife at the end.

He has an unattractive history of betraying woman. According to his rival Hepburn’s work colleague in the haberdasher’s shop, the Quaker William Coulson,  these include his sister Annie (though our age would not credit Coulson’s claim that she died of a broken heart) and at least two others after her. There is also Kinraid’s cousin Bessy Courney , who is convinced that she is engaged to him at the same time as Sylvia (I always found it remarkable that this bathetic situation wasn’t treated with more humour, but I suppose the author thought that it would detract from the tragic tone of the novel).  None of this is exactly proved, but Coulson is after all a Quaker, who regards lying as a deadly sin.

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

This character  doesn’t have ringlets – they’d get in the way of his Work Ethic and might even 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.

His first incarnation 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, we see his vulnterablity: ‘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  has made him unfeeling towards his fellow men and women. 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. We come to  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 the second version 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 through the cheerful gossip of his fellow sailors in a Newcastle pub. He 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 the sheer self-serving treachery of his action or inaction –  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, ‘gaunt and haggard’. In fact, she becomes infatuated with him even before he gets his looks back, and is eager to speak to a man she regards as a wounded hero when he attends his friend Darley’s funeral.

In the end, Hepburn is disfigured and dying, but still, in having rescued his hated enemy Kinraid at the Seige of Acre and their daughter Bella from an opportune tidal wave – he is the hero it is part of Sylvia’s 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.

This recycling of a character type is, of course, only a more obvious example of what all authors do to some exent. If we add a physical feature here, add a quality there, drop one there, we have a totally new individual, and one whose experiences must necessarily be different. That is one of the fascinating aspects of writing.

Elizabeth Gasekll was only one of many who gave a characer several incarnations. Perhaps,  thoughs she was unusual in being so bound up with giving the happy ending that real life denied to a beloved lost brother, whose fate was almost certainly tragic.