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.

     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.’

Characters’ Names: Some Thoughts from a Names Geek.

The spirituality of Cordelia, and the earthy sensuality of Goneril and Regan, are wonderfuly depicted here.

My PC has just  eaten a longish post I write all about research for historical novels, and the changing nature of the understanding of what are taken for granted as ‘historical facts. Ah, well: my own fault for not being super careful with an ailing PC, and I will have to re-write it another time.

For now, here is a post I wrote a while ago re-blogged…

I am a fully paid up, card holding name’s geek.

I have been, since my sister bought me a book on first names and their meanings when I was thirteen (more years ago than I care to admit). It was a little Collins’ Gem Dictionary, with a red leather cover. I found it fascinating. I have more up to date names books – for instance, ‘The Oxford Dictionary of First Names’, but this was my first.

I still have it, though the pages are falling out, I suppose from over use. I have a book on surnames too, though I am less fascinated by those, I suppose partly because of the patriarchal aspect. In general, you can’t get away from having a man’s second name in our society; even if you take your mother’s, that’s still your grandfather’s surname, and if you take your grandmother’s, well,that is her father’ s surname in turn, and so it goes on…

I know all sorts of obscure things about names. For instance, on the name ‘Elsa’ (my daughter’s third name): people use it as a short form of Elizabeth, and that’s the way my modern names book interprets it, but the old Collins gem dictionary, which I think is in some ways better researched, has it down as from old German meaning ‘noble one’.

I always enjoy naming characters of my own, and examining the names other writers give to their characters.

I love Italian names. The dash that added ‘o’ or ‘I’ or ‘a’ or adds on to a name, otherwise quite prosaic. ‘Eduardo’ for instance. What a wonderfully over-the-top name ‘Ludovico’ is – whereas ‘Ludovic’ just rings pretentious to me as a ‘learned’ form of ‘Louis’…

‘Rinaldo Rindaldini’ wouldn’t be the same without that last letter to his name. Even the bad translation of the title, ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini: Captain of Bandetti’ can’t detract from the ring of that. Well, I’m assuming it’s a bad translation: I don’t know more than a few words in Italian. Wouldn’t ‘Robber Chief’ or ‘Chief of Brigands’ be better? ‘Captain’ makes it sound bathetic as a title, like an Angela Brazil type story about ‘Hilary Smith: Captain of the First Eleven’ or some such.

To English speakers, a foreign name somehow adds an element of the out of the ordinary, the mysterious. For instance, ‘A Day in the Life of John Dennison’ doesn’t quite have the ring of ‘A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch’.

I love Scandinavian names too: ‘Gustav’ and ‘Erland’ ‘Sigmund’ , ‘Ingvar’, ‘Ulf’ ‘Eyof’ and ‘Olaf’ are names I am definitely going to use at some point. Likewise, Marna, Gudrun (as in ‘Women in Love’), Sigrid, Marta and others (well, I’ve already used ‘Marta’ once). I also have a liking for Germanic names, some of which were of course, used by Anglo Saxon s – ‘Reinwald’, Lothar’, ‘Brigitta’, ‘Liesel’ among others.

And then there are so many French and Welsh names I like, and Irish, and…But this list is getting too long.

One of the problems about writing historical fiction is that you must use the names in use in that period, and subsequent to the twentieth century, this was quite limited, which I assume is why Jane Austen, for instance, uses such a limited stock of names. Elizabeth, Anne, Jane, Mary and so on are constantly distributed among heroines and less attractive characters (come to think of it, unless I’m being forgetful, she showed a very human streak in that I don’t think she gave ‘Jane’ to a baddy). Of course, very few people would impose the name of the heroine of ‘Mansfield Park’ ,‘Fanny’ on a female protagonist these days; coarse in the US, it is obscene in the UK. Hmm – how about a broad beamed male philanderer, though, as a nickname?

Samuel Richardson, among others, got round this limited supply of names by using ones that were then very unusual for his heroines – ‘Pamela’ ( that is from Sir Philip Sidney, I think; and before the twentieth century the emphasis was on the second syllable) and ‘Clarissa’ – a mediaeval name. Well, for some reason he used the down- to- earth ‘Harriet’ for the heroine of ‘Sir Charles Grandison’. His male characters have less fanciful ones. I don’t remember the first name of ‘Squire B’ – I don’t think it was ever given, though I may be wrong – but the villain and main male character of ‘Clarissa’ is called Robert, known affectionately as ‘Cousin Bobby’ by those naïve female cousins who haven’t aroused his bizarre Machiavellian sexual urges.

Shakespeare, naturally, besides inventing words, made various names up, ie, Cordelia in King Lear. Well, he changed that from an earlier, far inferior play with a heroine called Cordeilla, and that was originally a Cornish or Welsh name, Cordula. The legend of ‘King Leir’ is an ancient legend, of course…

Polonius snooping again, and about to get his from Halmet, through the arras…

Then there is the rather incongruously called Ophelia in the Danish court in Hamlet. Perhaps Polonius went in for Classical names, with her brother being named Laertes. Polonius being a pedantic, self-consciously learned sort of fellow, that might fit. But what of his own name? I have never gone into that before.

The ever useful Wickipedia says: –

‘The first quarto of Hamlet, Polonius is named “Corambis“. It has been suggested that this derives from “crambe” or “crambo”, derived from a Latin phrase meaning “reheated cabbage”, implying “a boring old man” who spouts trite rehashed ideas.

However, before the 20th century, Polonius was played differently, more as an opportunist courtier with Machiavellian propensities than as a spouting fool; after all, he instructs his servant to spy on his own son Laertes.

A lovely depiction of the deranged Ophelia’s end.

Another Shakespearean name that I love is ‘Perdita’- from ‘The Winter’s Tale’ taken from the Latin for ‘lost’ .

Then, there are the names taken from the opposite end of the literary spectrum. For instance, Charles Garvice.

He tends to give his heroines quite simple names, ones fashionable in late Victorian and Edwardian times – Eva, Edna, Nora, Esther, Una, Stella, Constance and so on, occasionally branching out into the more exotic – Maida, Kyra and Esmerelda. His heroes tend to be called surnames, like Tempest or Heriot or Blair. Sometimes, they are called down-to-earth names like Jack. One thing is certain; we know the villains from their names: Stannard Marshbank, the slippery name of the Conniving Cousin villain of ‘The Outcast of the Family’ is a typical one.

Why writers choose particular names for their characters has always intrigued me. I know that Magaret Mitchell was going to call her heroine Pansy O’Hara. In those politically incorrect times, the editors objected, not, naturally, to the appalling racism in the book, but to that being the pejorative name for ‘effeminate men’ during that time. Thus, the author had to use one of the heroine’s family names, her heroine’s Irish grandmother being called Katie Scarlett.

Rhett and Ashley were of course, surnames. Any number of the names that were used in that massively successful book have since become fairly popular.

I was interested to read that Ian Fleming called the hero of his male fantasy nonsense James Bond because he thought that was the most boring name that he could possibly imagine. It seemed at the time he intended to make him a colourless character ‘to whom things happen’. The women, when not being described as ‘the girl’ are called things like Vesper and Honeychile and Domino.

Yet, the Countess Theresa, who truly steals Bond’s heart, though, is known by the wholly prosaic name of Tracy.

On the names of women in the 007 stories, we must never forget, of course, the lesbian whom Bond makes straight, the unforgettably dubbed ‘Pussy Galore’ (word fail me!) .

Incidentally, the author gives Bond’s explanation for what he sees as the increase in lesbianism since the Second World War as the shocking habit of women in taking to wearing trousers.

The problem with films, as a critic commented, is that after seeing them, you can’t imagine a character looking any other way. Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara.

Hmm. By inverting the same argument, it is a shame, then, that Bond, who is after all meant to be a Scotsman, didn’t take to wearing a kilt. Then Fleming could have started a Gay Spy genre back in the 1950’s.

Elizabeth Gaskell not only called her female protagonist a dull name – Mary Barton – but made this the name of her novel. Well, it isn’t quite as dull as ‘Tom Jones’.

Should anyone be intersted, when it comes to naming my own characters, as most of my own novels have been set in the late eighteenth century (with one in the Regency proper and only one modern one) that has limited the choice. Still, having French characters – or ones of French descent, has widened it a bit.

Émile was originally the villain of an earlier version of the story – and in naming him, I just thought lazily, ‘What French name shall I use? Let me see – what was Zola’s first name? Ah yes…’

Intriguingly, the second name I gave him, which he uses in his persona as an outlaw, ‘Monsieur Gilles’ has got strong connections with Provence, as has his third, ‘Gaston’ . I certainly didn’t consciously know this when I chose them off the top of my head. Very likely, though, as a true names geek, I had read that before and it was still at the back of my mind.

As for the name of his true love, Sophie, I have always liked it, and knew it was popular in the eighteenth century. The same with Isabella. Besides, there’s the play on Rousseau’s use of those two names together.

His cousin, the male lead of ‘Ravensdale’, Reynaud Ravensdale’s name is a pun on ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’’s own name, ‘Reynaud’ having the same root. ‘Ravensdale’ was partly written as a spoof of the traditional robber novels, such as this and Pushkin’s ‘Dubrovsky’, besides the clichés of historical romances featuring highwaymen.

‘Clarinda’ I used for my female lead in ‘The Villainous Viscount’ because I came across it in Elizabeth Gaskell, and took to it. It seemed fun to give that wholly practical and unornamental female lead a fancy name.

I don’t know how many other writers are names geeks. I have to say, if I really dislike a protagonist’s name, it actually detracts from the pleasure of the story for me. That is a bit extreme, but for instance, among others, I can’t stand the names Wendy (that, by the way, comes from a little girl calling James Barrie ‘Friendy Wendy’) and Tammy (though not Tamara or Tamsin), Max, and Peter (though not Pierre, Pedro, or Pyotr). I hope nobody reading this blog is called one of those.

That brings back a ludicrous memory to me. I remember as a kid disliking a serial in a girl’s comic where the goody-goody heroine, the form captain, whose name I have forgotten, though I don’t think it was Wendy, was plagued by ‘The jealous vice captain’ (who had my real name) and her toady, who was called Doris (my mother’s name, and for decades past a favourite for generally unattractive characters, though back in the late nineteenth century Garvice used it for some of his heroines). Well, the character with my real name at least made malicious witticisms: Doris had no wit, and only tittered at them…

More on ‘Wuthering Heights’ : The Notorious Absence of a Wholly Sympathetic Character and a Moral Compass.

Snow Wuthering Heights

I am still reading  that fascinating book by Marianne Thormëhelen, ‘The Brontës and Religion’, and it raises a point that had vaguely occurred to me, but which the author brings into sharp focus.

There is no character in ‘Wuthering Heights’ with whom the reader is meant to identify, who is depicted as generally sympathetic – even if flawed  –  and who provides a moral compass from which to view the events.  I believe this is the main reason why I experienced a sense of incompleteness about the story, and found it  vaguely dissatisfying.  This may well be the reasons why so many readers are left with a confused and disturbed feeling on finishing the story.

Marianne Thormëhelen  says:

‘‘Wuthering Heights’ has no such moral focus (as that provided by the heroines of ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘The Tenant of Wildfeld Hall’ )  which  might have imparted authority to any ethical standpoint associated with the dramatis personae themselves.  As generations of ‘Wuthering Heights’ readers have observed, with varying degrees of fascination and irritation, none of the persons in the novel is entirely likable; the natural wish to sympathize with a lead character is thwarted at every turn. Attempts to make Nelly Dean the villain of the piece may seem fanciful; but her loyalties are inconstant and her complacency unjustified.  Edgar is surely right to upbraid her for delaying the recognition of Catherine’s illness , and that is only one of her grave mistakes. Convinced of the goodness of her intentions, she shows no sign of ethical development involving recognition of her faults.  Nor does anybody else in the book, with the possible and partial exception of young Cathy.  Hareton is guided towards his happy ending by nature (decent genes in combination with love) not be principle; and Edgar Linton is a gentleman and devoted husband and father, but he does not possess enough force of character to provide a moral centre of gravity in a tale which contains such varied and vehement passions. ‘

The man who thinks that he is a moral authority , the Calvanist serving man Joseph, is in fact, a figure of fun.   Intolerably convinced of his  own spiritual superiority, superstitious and wholly uncharitable,  he provides black humour among the grim melodrama and savage brutality played out between the other characters.

It is also one of the few books I can think of which has been an outstanding success without any firm  moral basis . Of course, there are books with anti-heroes and flawed narrators, and ‘Wuthering Heights’  certainly  does have an anti-hero in Heathcliff, and unreliable narrators in Nelly Dean and Lockwood; but most books which have these do generally have some sort of moral focus provided b y at least one admirable character. While I think that Marianne Thormëhelen is rather harsh in her judgement of Nelly,   In ‘Wuthering Heights’ the reader is left to make his or her own way among a group of characters often behaving unsympathetically,   with generally little in the way of ethical insight.


Perhaps that is even a source of its continuing fascination for generations of readers.

This makes me  think,  once again, that the  earlyVictorian writers were lucky as regards breaking certain rules in novel writing. They may have faced strict  censorship  regarding the then  rigid notions regarding sexual morality and propriety, but they were perhaps allowed to break rules which today are regarded by most people in  the publishing world as incontrovertible.

Received wisdom today is that if  a book doesn’t have sufficiently sympathetic characters, readers will lose interest and soon enough  stop  reading. This blog featuring writing advice is surely fairly typical


Yet, ‘Wuthering Heights’  continues to engage readers, and only a portion of these are convinced that Heathcliff  is a romantic hero.  For myself,   I am sorry to say that I was uncharitable enough to hope that Heathcliff  was forced in some way to repent of his evil actions, and to my disappointment, he never did…

…I first read it many years ago, of course; long before I learnt that the author was fascinated in the concept of the fate of the unrepentant Gothic wrongdoer.

As for what motivates other readers who are not partisan regarding Heathcliff  or the older Cathy  into continuing to read the story, I am not sure.  The vivid writing, larger than life characters and Gothic happenings must surely play a part.  Perhaps, they might let me know?

wuthering heights


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.’

The Antagonist in Various Forms


‘Evelina’ by Fanny Burney. Sir Clement Willoughby introduces himself with an air of gallantry, Letter XIII. This edition published in 1920. First published in 1778. FB, English novelist, 13 June 1752- 6 Jan 1840. Illustration by Hugh Thomson 1860-1920. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

I read somewhere the phrase, ‘Inside every antagonist, there’s a protagonist waiting to come out’ ( obviously a variant of the saying ‘inside every fat person, there’s a slim person trying to come out’).

The antagonist, of course, makes the story nearly as much as the protagonist. If you have a weak or insufficiently motivated antagonist, it massively detracts from the tension, and tension, as so many advisors on writing craft constantly hammer home, forms the main interest of a plot.

Of course, an antagonist does not have to be evil or wrongly motivated. An antagonist can just be someone on the other side about a particular issue, and have strong arguments for doing the things s/he does to frustrate the will of the protagonist. Then, the situation can be as true to life as it often isn’t, when the rights and wrongs of a situation are wholly clear cut, with the baddies writ large – though reading about that sort of situation has its own appeal.

I have often thought how in Shakespeare – with the exception of his early, unfair depiction of Joan of Arc – part of his outstanding greatness is his capacity to depict everyone’s point of view fairly.

For instance, this is true of one of his greatest antagonists, Edmund in ‘King Lear’. He is shown to be motivated in his appalling villainies and his determination to usurp his legitimate brother’s place, by Gloucester’s insensitive treatment of  him, leading to his obsessive jealousy of Edgar. Gloucester even jokes coarsely about his mother in front of him to the Duke of Kent. Then Gloucester adds that he has been abroad and will be sent away again…

At the end of the play, on hearing how Goneril and Regan have died through their rivalry over him, he says, ‘Yet Edmund was beloved’. That is a tragic phrase; it shows what underlay his dismal scheming and brutality. He trusted no-one; but he had a great neglected need to be loved.

Tybalt in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is  often described as the antagonist, and his motivation appears to be more simple than as so often in Shakespeare. He seems to be merely violent, and to hate the rival family unthinkingly.
An antagonist can be honest but misguided, or charming but flawed, or an estranged former ally. What s/he does have to be – even if s/he isn’t a person, but an impersonal force like the weather or a societal rule – is strongly motivated and a fit adversary for the protagonist.

It can be difficult  to enjoy a book when you wholly side with the Antagonist, as I did with Mary Renault’s books about Theseus. There, the Antagonist is female power as personified in the Great Mother, and I was very sorry that Theseus as the personification of patriarchy inevitably triumphed as regards power. He did not, of course, triumph as regards his personal life, ending up an empty shell after the sacrificial death of his Apostate Amazon and his murder of his wife Phaedra (incidentally, that  was an astoundingly inefficient choke that he used; done efficiently it should have rendered her unconscious in ten seconds appproximately, not in minutes; but that’s the Sportsfighter in me speaking) .

Then there is the story where the Antagonist can triumph – the Anti Hero, and the one where the Protagonist is his or her own Antagonist. Perhaps s/he does things under an unconscious influence or is even haunted by his own Doppleganger; as In ‘Dr. Jeklyl and Mr. Hide’ and the main character in Chuck Palanhuik’s ‘Fight Club’.

Sometimes, an antagonist truly makes a series, for some readers at least, becoming a favourite character.

I remember when I read ‘The Mortal Instruments’ to my daughter, I never thought the later books were the same after the larger than life antagonist Valentine was killed off. I found his habit of jumping through a portal with a contemptuous jibe a brilliant feature (besides, I was sad that he was never depicted as repenting before going to his final account).

On entertaining Antagonists, I recommend Rannie in Robert Wingfield’s ‘The Legend of Dan’ series. I do relish an Antagonist with a sense of humour. Also, there is Harpalycus in Rebecca Lochlann’s ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series. He is so foul it is funny, and he revels in his wickedness. What he most keenly relishes, after many centuries of body hopping, is causing as much misery as he can on the three main characters, Aridela and her two rival lovers.





I have said before, that sometimes the Antagonist is unfortunately more interesting or even more sympathetic than the Protagonist , and even if s/he fails to win the lead characters’ love, or take over the world – or whatever it is s/he wants to do –the said Antagonist anyway takes over the book.

This is what I felt about Clement Willoughby (the original of Jane Austen’s own beguiling Willoughby, perhaps –as we know from Mary’s quotes from Evelina that Jane Austen had read it). He is far more entertaining than the sententious Lord Orville, and protests eternal devotion to suspicious heroine, the problem being that he never quite gets round to proposing and makes the occasional half-hearted effort to abduct her.

MrWickham_characterportraitOn Jane Austen, I never thought that Wickham was quite up to the part. That may just be me, and perhaps a villain of that sort doesn’t need much strong motivation, and just drifts from one self-indulgent escapade and heartless seduction to the next. While general hatred towards Mr. Darcy is part of his motivation, it isn’t somehow made convincing, and his seduction of Lydia is just part of his general self indulgence rather than something he is strongly motivated, though it does further the plot. I suppose this weakness, this tendency to undertake mean schemes and then to be bought off from them, is meant to be all part of his villainy, but somehow he is a disappointing villain.

Another interesting point, to return to what I said at the beginning of this post, is the fact that sometimes exactly who is a Protagonist and who an Antagonist can be unclear. It can even depend on perspective, as according to the point of view, their roles can be interchangeable. It is to a particular example of this that I return in my next post.

Character Development: Some Classic Best Sellers Without Much of It…


No giant insect visible….

A couple of years ago, the latest thing in discussing novels online  or leaving reviews seemed to be a lot of talk about ‘character development’. I haven’t heard so much about it of late- maybe I haven’t been looking – but back then it seemed as if you couldn’t read a single review without that dreaded ‘character development’ coming into it , and no, it didn’t mean the hero’s chest and waist measurement.

Authors got paranoid about it. ‘Does my character develop enough’ was becoming the greatest fear. I saw reviews from that time where bestselling authors were slated because their characters didn’t undergo an obvious change by chapter two.

In a way, all this seems the more unfair, when one considers how many classical authors wholly neglected this aspect of writing.

Well, Kafka at least would have been all right regarding an early depiction of character development in his 1915 novel ‘ Metamorphoses’, as Gregor Samsa undergoes a rather ‘life changing’ alteration in the first sentence. After that, though, he doesn’t seem to do a whole lot else except be ill treated and fed on rotten food for the rest of the novel.

Interestingly, and I’ve touched on this before – there are any number of classic books where the characters remain static. Dickens didn’t bother about it generally for his heroes and heroines. In ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay at the end are just the same as they were at the beginning, only a bit older.

With regard to the secondary characters, Sidney Carton the inert cynic, falls passionately in love with Lucie, and remains hopelessly in love with her for about ten years, and it is that which leads him to replace Charles Darnay as he awaits execution at the end, but that is about all the changing he does. He starts off a hopeless drunken loser and remains one. Does Dr Manette undergo any particular changes during the novel? Not so you’d notice; he gets addicted to making shoes in his long stint in gaol, so perhaps that counts a bit.


There are exceptions in Dickens, to be fair. There are those characters who undergo a massive moral reformation, like Ebenezer Scrooge, or less dramatically, Pip in ‘Great Expectations’. Still, overall, good old character development wasn’t Dickens’ forte, and his sales were never seemingly affected by the lack of it. Maybe readers of the mid Victorian era didn’t like it very much. In fact, a good many of Dicken’s minor character characters, traditionally celebrated as ‘great characters’ are in fact stereotypes.

Of course, the whole issue of how far secondary characters are to be depicted as changing in a novel, and how much attention is to be devoted to this, and how much space is to be devoted to them anyway, is all highly debatable to this day. More on that in my next post.

P G Wodehouse- of course – made a fortune in writing about stereoptypes and static characters. We leave Bertie Wooster and Jeeves (does anyone know his first name? Does he know it himself?) exactly as they were when we met them. Bingham Little gets married, of course, to the romance writer Rosie M Banks, but that doesn’t seem to change his lifestyle much.

I was about twelve when I first read those, and I hoped that Bertie Wooster would end up getting married himself, but no such thing. In fact, in one story, one of his friends or relatives remarks that Jeeves will never allow that, and I never enjoyed the stories so much after that: it made Jeeves seem positively sinister. Perhaps he is a control freak? A Freudian study of that relationship might prove most rewarding.

I have to say, I never noticed any particular alterations in the characters of the heroines or the heroes of the couple of the 1950’s Mary Stewart novels I read, either. I personally don’t enjoy her writing, but she is highly regarded as the inventor of romantic suspense and a fine writer besides.  Still, it was a long time ago that I did read them, and I may have missed something.

Going back a good bit, there’s the question of how much character development there is in Jane Austen. Obviously, her most famous novel, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is centred about  a couple who do change throughout the course of the novel, and we know which qualities they are going to change from the title, but how about the other characters?
They are wholly believable, but they all – Mr and Mrs Bennett, Jane, Bingley, Lydia, Wickham, Mr Collins and so on, seem to leave the novel pretty much as they entered it.

They were well drawn and convincing at the beginning, and they are well drawn and convincing at the end, but they seem to remain static. Well, come to think of it, maybe Mary and Kitty do develop a bit. Mary is happier, because we learn that she is no longer mortified by being compared to her prettiest sisters, while Kitty, we read, becomes ‘less insipid’.

Quite often in love stories, in fact, all the transformation that seems to be required of a character is for him or her to transfer his or her love from one character to another – that would appear to be all the change that Edmund Bertram undergoes in ‘Mansfield Park’. The heroine Fanny Bertram does develop; she changes from a shy girl into a poised and efficient parson’s wife for Edmund, but she remains, I am sorry to say, priggish and humourless from beginning to end of the story.

Marianne Dashwood in ‘Sense and Sensibility’, of course, does indeed have an alteration in character. I have often said that I found the subduing of her passionate and rebellious spirit one of the most depressing parts of Jane Austen’s writing.

To my shame, I must admit that I have only read two of Thackeray’s novels, ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘The Luck of Barry Lyndon’. He troubled about this modern bugbear of character development not at all. The villainous Barry Lyndon’s luck may change, but he remains the same faithless, fickle scoundrel at the end of his memoirs, save he is now living (attended by his mother, and in a good deal of comfort) in a debtor’s prison.

The same is nearly as true of another con-artist in classical literature, Becky Sharp in ‘Vanity Fair’. This enduringly successful novel has very little in the way of changing characters, a bit of moral repentance from secondary characters aside, and Becky is too villainous to go into any of that.

She is shown as becoming more conniving, it is true. At the beginning of the story she is openly rebellious. When the carriage she shares with Amelia Sedley leaves the boarding school where she has been employed as a drudge she shouts, ‘Vive Boneparte.’
At first, her lying and scheming is a bit blatant – she makes the mistake of claiming to love children to Amelia Sedley, and even the often undiscerning Amelia could not fail to see how much she had disliked the small girls at school. Within a chapter or so, however, she becomes a consummate hypocrite, and an arch manipulator, and stays that way from then on.

The character of Rawdon Crawley, Becky’s husband and for years her dupe and partner in crime, does have a moral reformation, apparently caused by fatherhood, though we are not given any access to his mental processes. His admiration for his sister-in-law Lady Jane appears to play a part in this.

He is even shown as feeling some shame about having cheated George Osborne out of his inheritance at gambling – when he meets the old Mr Sedley and he mentions him, Thackeray says Rawdon ‘flushes up red’ – and ‘blackleg’ (ie, card cheat in Regency slang) and Becky’s dupe though he has been, he is outraged when he learns that he is viewed as a ‘complacent husband’. He knocks down Lord Steyne when he finds him alone with Becky, and wishes to challange him to a duel, but he aging libertine sneaks out of it.

Amelia Sedley doesn’t change, but is of those characters whose love is transferred from one character to another. She ceases to worship the memory of the late George Osborne, apparently believing all Becky’s harsh words about him – and begins to worship the dull but worthy Dobbin, giant feet and all.

So, we may well envy those earlier writers for the easy time they had regarding depiction of character.

Still,now there is a wealth of online advice for authors about how to pursue character development on line. Here, for instance, are just two of many excellent articles.


That is actually by the Reader’s Digest – not the sort of publication I like to recommend – but it is very good.

Perhaps, if Fanny Burney had read these, she might have thought, ‘Hmm. It might be better if in my novel, there is just one person who doesn’t admire or envy Evelina…’

Maybe Charles Dickens might even have thought: ‘I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to make Charles Darnay a little more interesting…’