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 for 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…
I wrote a longish post about research for historical novels and changing opinions on ‘facts’ in history, and guess what – my PC has eaten it. It is ‘irretrievable’. Ironically, part of the post metioned the frustration of wasting hours carrying out fruitless research on topics where nobody can give you anything but the vaguest of answers. Well, I wasted a number writing that post, that is for sure.
Seeing that I have resolved to write a blog post every ten days or so in 2020, I am going to cheat and reblog this post that I have already reblogged once, as it still seems to get a fair amount of reads. It is about the male equivalent of the Mary- Sue.
I’ve been looking for discussions about the male equivalent of characters defined as Mary-Sue’s online, and what interests me is how few posts there are about Gary-Stus and Marty-Stus,and how few male characters are defined in this way.
In fact, I read a blog which, while admitting that there are few Gary Stu discussions compared to all those Mary-Sue accusations flying about, didn’t explore this, going on instead to list various heroines perceived by the author as Mary Sues. I was surprised to find Elizabeth Bennet on this blogger’s list; but more on that later.
Goodreads has a ‘Listopia’ list of Gary-Stus. As I am not a great reader of current fantasy, and most of the male leads named came from this genre, I didn’t know enough about the characters to comment. Even I, however, knew the male leads from the top two. First on the list was Edward Cullen from ‘Twilight’ by Stephanie Myer, and second was Jace from ‘City of Bones’ by Cassandra Clare.
Well, I think I said in my last post that the fact that many readers define the heroes and heroines of these books as Marty-Stus or Gary-Stus seems to have done little to detract from their bestselling status and continuing popularity.
I did let out a hoot of laughter at seeing that Frances Hodgeson-Burnett’s tiresome ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ featured on this list, that infamous young Cedric of the sailor suits and suave compliments.
I added the hero of Fanny Burney’s ‘Evelina’ to this list. Lord Orville is, surely, the original Marty-Stu, perfectly matched to the heroine who competes with Pamela for the title of the original Mary-Sue.
Lord Orville is handsome, witty, suave, gallant, and unlike his roguish rival, Sir Clement Willoughby, tenderly respectful of the heroine’s innocence (this is off topic; but did Jane Austen borrow Clement Willoughby’s name for her own rogue in ‘Sense and Sensibility’?).
I also added the secondary hero of Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ to the list. Charley Kinraid ‘the boldest Specksioneeer on the Greenland Seas’ is handsome, fearless, irresistible to women, can drink endlessly and never fall down, is a brilliant raconteur, beguiling and the life and soul of the party. Just about the only person who doesn’t admire him in the book is his jealous rival Phillip Hepburn.
Not only that, but he has so much good luck that he is virtually indestructable. He survives two serious gunshot attacks without seemingly lasting ill effects. A woman is rumoured to have died of a broken heart after he finished with her.
The only bad luck he has is falling victim to a press gang, and the Royal Navy officers quickly take to him and realizing his exceptional abilities, promote him so that within a few years, he is able to marry an heiress. Then, further promoted to Captain, he is able to send out press gangs of his own…
As the term ‘Mary-Sue’ (later mutated to ‘Marty-Stu’ or ‘Gary-Sue’ to accommodate male characters) originated in fantasy fan fiction, I suppose it isn’t surprising that most of these online discussions are about this genre.
I did find a very witty catalogue of types of Marty-Stu on this link. Unfortunately, it’s about those on television rather than in books. It is excellent, and the types are easily recognizable in novels as well as television series and films:
‘Dark Hole Stu: His gravity is so great, he draws all the attention and causes other characters (and, often, reality itself) to bend and contort in order to accommodate him and elevate him above all other characters. Characters don’t act naturally around him – guys wish to emulate him and all the girls flock to him regardless of circumstances. They serve as plot enablers for him to display his powers or abilities, with dialogue that only acts as set-ups for his response. He dominates every scene he is in, with most scenes without him serving only to give the characters a chance to “talk freely” about him – this usually translates to unambiguous praise and exposition about how great he is. Most people don’t oppose him and anybody who does will quickly realise their fault in doing so or just prove easy to overcome. ..’
Nevertheless, looking about for Marty-Stu or Gary-Stu discussions, I am a bit perturbed. There was seemingly so much more talk of Mary-Sues on the web compared to that centering on their male equivalents.
This seems accurately to reflect the different standards and expectations applied to male and female characters. There does appear to be a good deal less resentment of male characters presented as admirable, handsome, unflappable, invincible in fights, and invariably attractive to most women.
A male character is permitted to have glaring character flaws and still be presented as generally heroic. He is also allowed to be sexually adventurous and even promiscuous; a female character so free with her favours would be defined as ‘slutty’ and lose the sympathy of many female, as well as male, readers.
In fact, being emotionally challenged is often seen as a desirable attribute in these stereoptypical male leads. It is only rarely one with female leads. This has led me to wonder how readers would react, say, to a female version of the Byronic male?
This strikes me at least as being unfair.
I also note, that for some reviewers, the term ‘Mary- Sue’ is applied rather loosely, being leveled at almost any female character whom they for whatever reason, resent.
This leads me back to the term being applied by one blogger to Elizabeth Bennett. She doesn’t seem to me at all to qualify.
Yes, she is lucky to attract the hero’s admiration, but she does that through wit rather than her looks, which as everyone knows, originally elicited that ‘not handsome enough to tempt me’ remark from him. It is true that her mother doesn’t appreciate her, and a virtual requirement for Mary-Sues is not to be appreciated by her family – but she is her father’s favourite daughter.
Apart from wit and dancing, she has no particular skills apart from perception. In the book (as distinct from the film versions) she is depicted as a mediocre singer and pianist; her sister Mary in fact described as more skilled, but with an affected style, so that people find her performances tiresome.
I suspect that the blogger disliked the character of Elizabeth Bennett, but not because she is a Mary-Sue. Possibly, the blogger disliked her because she is generally such a favourite among Jane Austen lovers that the chorus of praise from them becomes boring.
Therefore, it would be good if readers applied that suggestion I found on a fan fiction website about Mary-Sues: ‘Would I find these characteristics so annoying if she was male?’
Finally, a highly perceptive remark from a male poster called Tim Kitchin on Gary Stu’s:
‘Jason Bourne, Tintin, James Bond, Ethan Hunt would all ‘fit the description’. The absurdity of these Gary Stus doesn’t go unremarked by fans, but it doesn’t seem to evoke the same cultural baggage and resentment as many Mary Sue characters – for one thing because the intrinsic role-conflict (for which read ‘socially conditioned expectation’) inside male character leads is less complex…and for another because we are so used to them..
“If this ain’t a Bow Street Runner or some other thief taker, then I’m a Dutchwoman,” Kate told Suki, as they watched the short, stocky, dapper man came up to the Inn door. “Good morning, Sir. What will you have?”
They knew he was staying with their rivals in The King’s Justice up the road. The landlord there prided himself on running a respectable house. The tenants of The Huntsman knew he was jealous, because he didn’t have such open-handed customers. The man was even applying for a licence to have his premises made into a gaol, possible future lodgings for some of the regulars at The Huntsman.
The customer glanced about with hard pale grey eyes, fixing them on the baby, who let out a wail.
Kate picked him up. “Serve the gentleman, Suki.”
“A tankard of porter. A fine infant; is he your only one?”
“Seeing as I was only married fifteen months come Saturday, yes, Sir.” The man wetted his moustache. “Has Reynaud Ravensdale been in lately?”
“Ravensdale?” Kate laughed. “You can’t mean that Lord? The gentleman has high notions of our patrons, Suki. Yes, Sir, him and the Prince of Wales, they came in together.”
The man’s eyes hardened still more. “Exercise your wit, Mistress, if you will, but Lord or no, now he’s an outlaw, and lower than the merest farm hand, a wanted murderer with a price on his head for highway robbery. I hear tell he’s been seen hereabouts.”
“By who?” Kate looked outraged. “That old harridan over the way, I’ll be bound. There’s so many sightings of that Ravensdale in different places, he must have a better horse than Turpin’s Black Bess to get about the way he does, is all I can say. What did they say he looked like?”
The man took some swallows of his drink before he pulled out a printed bill. “Here’s the official description, and not so helpful, with him having medium colouring, and no distinguishing features, save it does say, ‘noticeable eyes’ whatever that means. Tall, it says, and spare though strongly made, and he has a fair trick in disguise. When he stayed with you, I think his hair was dyed and unpowdered and it was described as brown.”
“Could be anyone,” Kate gazed at him with her jaw slightly dropped. “Does he have the trick of adding pock marks to his face, makes him look fair ugly? Remember, Suki? There was a man stayed who looked like that, brown hair and so on, said he was going Reading way.”
“Or maybe,” Suki looked struck, “It could’ve been that stout man that would never take off his coat? He could have stuffed in pillows underneath his waistcoat. I remember thinking his thinnish face went ill with his body. I mind he rode a dun coloured horse and went up north.”
The man snorted: “Do you take me for a fool? Have a care, mistress; the magistrates don’t like to renew licences for those who harbour known highway robbers. Where’s the master of the house?”
“This is a respectable house, and I’ll give my mind to anyone who says different,” Kate said angrily, while Suki tossed the bright blue ribbons Flashy Jack had given her in defiance. “The master’s away on business; he ain’t due back till tomorrow at the earliest.” Kate looked squarely into those judgmental eyes, which seemed to know the purpose of that trip.
The baby let out a furious wail.
“Now see what you’ve done! They understand more than you think, and he don’t like you coming in here making out we ain’t fit to run a decent establishment.”
Suki clicked her tongue.
The man actually looked abashed, before draining his porter with a business-like slurp. “I play my part in keeping the world safe from marauding thieves and murderers like His Lordship Reynaud Ravensdale, and if you’ve nought to hide you won’t mind my questions, nor your baby neither.”
They all turned about at a crash. The one time librarian at Wisteria House tottered into the yard to collapse on the bench.
The thief taker nodded to the women. “I may call in again.”
“Do, Sir, and we promise to keep a sharp look out for His Lordship.”
The man paused in the door, saying to Suki, “Look out for his fellow robber John Gilroy too: tall, fair hair, quite the swell and a ladies’ man. He’d have an eye for a pretty wench like you, miss; you and half the girls in London if I hear right.”
He must have been disappointed at her indifferent shrug. Kate snorted: “Be serious, Sir! As if we don’t get young men in here all the time, making up to her, and half of them called Jack or John.”
Kenrick fingered his teeth. “As for your complaints about the slaves, these later efforts should make more satisfactory domestics, also adding to the numbers of my private guard. Besides, you also are yourself remiss. You promised me that late hypocrite’s notes. I have yet to see them, though you squander time on ineffectual journeys to Plas Planwyddan.”
“I am setting them in order, in the little spare time I have: hence my complaints.”
He ran his cold glance over her. “Then do not dally.” Her lips thinned again as he went on, shifting uncomfortably. “It must be some hours before I recover those chest wounds. Dare I risk a last sup of your blood for a tonic?”
She touched her own teeth. “You said that of the last you took. You forget, Mr Kenrick, you supped heavily from me on your return. I believe I turn too far for you to take from me. Still, if you care to risk it…”
“Let me smell you.” Lunging, he brought his nose close to her throat, and now entirely vulpine, sniffed, his glassy eyes as bright as silver coins. Even as she flinched back, he pulled away, grimacing. “Faugh! You stink of the kitchen.”
“Naturally, when I have been working there, as you have failed to give me an adequate cook. That girl has much to learn, and the creature Galahad is only good for a kitchen scrub. The others areonly fit for the outdoors.”
Kenrick’s voice rose high, “I asked that lout Williams to use those vulgar looks to draw in some healthy wench to set my teeth a-tingle, but he had the insolence to deny me, protesting that he is too much occupied in training the knights. He added that a surfeit of blood is not good in the early stages of return – much he knows of it. I must expect a protracted convalescence, since that hulking lout still complains of pains in his innards, nigh on a week after his return.
“I suspect he malingers. His scrub is yet human. Doubtless he lingers like a gourmet, relishing every mouthful, while refusing to share her. Why he is so selfish about that slut, when that Frenchman must already have sunk his fangs into her, I cannot fathom. The fellow has become arrogant. I see how things must go in a household without a master.”
“Also, one without a mistress,” she said.
“Humph! I must try you; your blood may yet be good for a last tonic.” Kenrick broke off to wipe away the saliva that had gathered at his lips.
Guinevere Gwynne’s face hardened as she lengthened that fine, long neck above her swelling bosom. “Bite, then.”
“I suppose I must endure the odour –” he pressed his mouth to her creamy skin, and then wrenched away again, shuddering in revulsion. “Ugh! You even taste of grease!”
“That is fat from the roasting fowl merely. I felt the sting when it spat as I bent over it earlier. That will not trouble a hot blooded man vampire.”
“It troubles me, Madam,” Kenrick drew out a handkerchief to wipe his lips. “You stink like to a greasy kitchen wench.”
“Maybe even as that little girl, your late wife’s favourite Katarina. did once, before Dubois took her away],” mused Guinevere Gwynne. “As I say, what can you expect, if I must perform as cook?”
“It is not good enough,” said Kenrick with dignity. “You degenerate into a slattern, Madam. I really cannot have a housekeeper who smells. I see I must ready the remaining slaves to take on this work.”
“For now, I must return to my work in the kitchens. Later this evening, I may find time to set the late Professor’s notes in order.”
As she tuned away, a knock sounded at the door. She opened it to two of Kenrick’s latest knights.
“Master Arthur said we must report to the Great Master,” droned the taller, who looked like a grotesque version of Reynaud Ravensdale.
“Come in if you must,” Kenrick snapped, “Why do you intrude?”
Guinevere Gwynne drew away as they passed.
In the first, Kenrick had clearly tried to reproduce the Grecian proportions of the original, but his skill had fallen short. The figure was athletic, with perfectly proportioned head and columnar neck. But while it had a recognisably Grecian profile, its nose coming straight down from its forehead, its mouth had a twisted look, while its eyes were so wide set that they gave an impression of a divergent squint, and its heavy eyelids and thick eyelashes had been overdone to the point where they drooped as if it was half asleep. Its skin, like Lancelot’s, was far more human than that of the others. The bright chestnut waves made a thatch so coarse that it stood up in wild disorder.
Its associate was less flamboyant. It was a version of Galahad, short and squat, with oversized hands. Its coarse hair was seemingly made of twine, and it had elementary features and a lipless mouth resembling a letter box. Its glassy eyes were prominent and lashless, while its large jaw and chin gave it a pugilistic look.
Both were dressed in tattered, ill fitting livery. Perhaps it was that same livery once worn by the sullen manservant who used to startle visitors by shouting up from the basement. Their clothing was disordered, and their skin oozed the inevitable green life fluid from cuts to face and hands. They bowed low as their master glared at them.
“Why does Arthur send you? Does it concern our enemy?”
“Great Master, Lancelot sent us out to get the eggs and potatoes from the farm down in the village. As we passed the inn, a group of men in uniform surrounded us, shouting,‘ In the King’s Name!’ They said we were vagabonds, they knew our sort, and we must join the Royal Navy to fight the French.”
Kenrick drew himself up. “A press gang, I take it, though it’s far inland for them. I’ve heard tell two brothers from hereabouts do that work, and like enough have been sent after Arthur by one of those cowardly yokels. The insolence to mistake my liveried servants for vagabonds! Naturally, you escaped them?”
“We said that the Great Master would not permit it.” They said, “Shite upon your Great Master’ and seized us.”
It stared at a snorting noise from Guinevere Gwynne, then resumed, “I threw one over the hedge. They were angry, setting on us with clubs. We seized these, but tore our skin. Then they set up an outcry, saying much of, ‘Damn my eyes’ and ‘’ Ware that blood, Fred; they have the pox as like as not,’ while trying to rub our gore from their own skins.
“Then they ran from us, with the one who had gone over the hedge coming up fast behind. We chased them, and the locals hooted and clapped their hands. But some made an outcry in the Welsh tongue, and one spoke in English, ‘Kenrick’s monsters have scared them away; it is not good enough.”
“In future, you must be on your guard: prevent them at all costs from ambushing Master Arthur as an ex-sailor. Now be on your way.”
When the creatures had left, Kenrick turned a cold glance on Guinevere Gwynne, who laughed helplessly.
Laura Lee: Come in. Sit down. Would you like something to drink?
Émile Dubois: Thank you, Madame. The red wine for a certainty. Georges – my right hand man, you know, though some might spread the rumour that he was my companion in crime – organized this interview. You do things very differently to how we went on in the late eighteenth century – and I speak not only of your strange inventions.
Laura Lee: Which is the first region your eyes would wander to if you were to ever see (gf/bf/wife/husband) naked?
Émile Dubois: I confess myself astonished, Madame, by the familiarity of that question, and from a lady, too. Bien sûr, the secrets of the bedchamber –
Georges (springing out from behind a curtain). Hoighty Toighty, Monsieur, as my Agnes would say. I can answer that one; he has ever been enslaved by his wife’s derrière and for sure, it is ample enough to attract attention.
Émile Dubois: (leaping up) Tais toi, you insolent lout, how dare you speak so of my angel?
Georges: I am fond indeed of Madame Dubois too, but facts is facts.
Laura Lee: Have you ever been caught naked by someone?
Émile Dubois: I do not clearly remember, Madame –
Georges: Of course he has. Biggest rake in all London society at one time.
Laura Lee: What is the one word in your vocabulary that you use excessively?
Émile Dubois: You will not be surprised to learn that I use three most often: ‘Tais toi Georges’.
Laura Lee: Personally, do you think size matters in reality?
Georges (sniggers vulgarly): Size of what?
Émile Dubois: If you refer to height and width of the whole body, Madame – and I can scarce credit you refer to anything else, liberal as your age is – then for a man in a mill – that is the term for a fist fight of our age, for sure size does matter. If you speak of the ladies, then our age appreciated female curves as you will see from the paintings. As for a man’s most intimate proportions – I am silent on that point, however nature has endowed me.
Laura Lee: Who is the biggest jerk/bitch you’ve ever come across in your life and why?
Émile Dubois: As a gentleman, Madame, I would not refer to a member of your sex by such a term, whatever the provocation, even That Jade Mistress Ceridwen Kenrick.
Georges: You can answer about old Kenrick, though.
Émile Dubois: For sure Goronwy Kenrick qualified as this ‘Jerk’ of whom you speak. A most rebarbative man. He set his siren wife upon me with her hypnotic powers so as to draw me into his schemes for time travel. He tried to sink his disgusting fangs into ma chere Sophie and forced me into co-operating with him by threatening to attack the human members of my household. Besides that, he tortured me by showing me visions of the tragedy that had overtaken my younger siblings. I have never wanted to kill anyone so much.
Georges: Tais toi, Monsieur! Madame will believe the rumours about our violent past to be true.
Émile Dubois: Impossible – the blather about our being Gentlemen of the Road was mere idle chatter.
Laura Lee: Have you ever accidentally and yet intentionally kissed someone or tried kissing someone?
Émile Dubois: Under a trance, yes. Ceridwen Kenrick made me do so. Her beauty was possibly an excuse, but ma pauvre Sophie took a dim view of the business.
Laura Lee: What is your favorite color of socks to wear?
Émile Dubois: Madame, in my age we do not wear these how you say, socks. Stockings, yes.
Laura Lee: Women/Men or Cars?
Émile Dubois: Ah, those horseless carriages that create such disruption? Horses are by far a better mode of transport and a good form of exercise, enfin. As for which of the three I find most interesting, as a young man about town, I was fascinated by your sex for a certainty.
Laura Lee: If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?
Émile Dubois: You have stabbed yourself in the foot, perhaps? Your pardon, Madame; in our age we do not go in for what you call introspection. Life is much more comfortable so, especially for a scoundrel such as myself.
Laura Lee: When was the last time you felt possessive?
Émile Dubois: You saw it in me, minutes since, when Georges had the audacity to speak of my wife’s wonderful derrière.l
Laura Lee: What is the most embarrassing moment you’ve experienced in your lifetime?
Georges: (guffaws) I will respond to that on Monsieur’s behalf – it was when, against all advice, he would go to Kenrick’s evil household in search of diversion with Madame Kenrick from his obsession with Sophie. Of course, he was bitten – and in the Most Compromising Circumstances, what we call en flagrant délit, at that. He had to fight his way out of the house besides, and came back in a fever to spew upon the most magnificent pair of boots that ever I owned.
Émile Dubois: (wearily) Georges, would it cause you great anguish firstly, never again to mention those boots and secondly, not to reveal any more of my most humiliating secrets to Madame?
Laura Lee: Thanks for your time today!
Émile Dubois: (rising and bending over her hand to kiss it). Your servant, Madame.
Georges: Had he ever truly been a servant, he would not say he was yours with such a flourish.
Sometimes, when life is stark, the only thing for me is one of Shakespeare’s plays: I suppose it is those ‘universal themes’ that bring things back into perspective.
But sometimes, conversely, I feel like reading some escapist nonsense. Intentional comedy or often, ridiculous melodramatic stories which can make for wonderful unintentional comedic scenes, and that is nearly as good. Then there is good dark comedy. Also, I do enjoy a well written fantasy.
So, these being times when even those given least to worrying could do with some light relief, here are some amusing pieces of escapism.
‘The Fourth Universe’ by Robert Wingfield (2015).
In my opinion, the funniest of all the books in the saga of ‘Dan Chronicles’, and a wonderful spoof of all sorts of genres. Here is one of my favourite paragraphs: –
‘The Magus stood in a small odorous group of soaked doku in the rain outside the spaceport. “Where do I go now?” he wondered as he tried to shoo them away. To his surprise, no helpful taxi drivers arrived to take him to solve his mission, no mysterious snipers attempted to end his life, in a fact, nobody even attempted to shine his shoes. At least he took comfort in the fact that it was raining, so it must be in the right place. It was always raining in films when you were close to mission end.’
There follows in due course a ridiculous and decisive confrontation between the Magus and his unfeeling nemisis.
You can buy the print version of this book at a distount from INCA here
A long time favourite of mine is the second of the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves series, the 1934 novel, ‘Right Ho, Jeeves’, which I have always thought the funniest.
For dark comedy, I don’t think one can do better than the currently unfashionable writer Patrick Hamilton, who was at the height of his fame between the 1930’s and the 1950’s. His 1947 novel ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ generally considered to be his masteriece, is set in Henley-on-Thames (renamed Thames Ditton) in a genteel boarding house ridiculously called The Rosamund Tea Rooms: –
‘…One’s responsibility in regard to the black out had been the occasion of one of Mrs Payne’s famous notes. ‘N.B. Visitors will be held personally responsible for completing their own black outs in their bedrooms.” – This being pinned, sensibly enough (Mrs Payne was nothing if not sensible), under the light switch. Mrs. Payne left or pinned up notes everywhere, austerely, endlessly – making one feel, at times, that a sort of paper-chase had been taking place in the Rosamund Tea Rooms – but a nasty, admonitory sort of paper chase. All innovaatins were heralded by notes, and all withdrawals and adjustments thus proclaimed. Experienced guests were well aware that to take the smallest step in an original or unusual direction would be to provoke a sharp note within twenty-four hours at the outside, and they therefore, for the post part, abandoned originality.’
Here, the quiet and fair-minded Miss Roach refuses to be intimidated by the boarding house tyrant, the idiotic Mr Thawaites. In the words of the blurb on my Oxford Paperback edition, ‘Disturbing the blighted resignation of (the guests’) lives come the vulgar and coquettish Vicki Kugelmann, and Lieutenant Pike, the American serviceman…’
A different sort of dark comedy is to be found in another classic story, the short ghost story ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen. In this, a collector of antique china named Martha Pym is staying over the Christmas period with some relatives in a remote part of Essex. A few years ago, she bought a Crown Derby set at a local auction held in one of the isolated local houses, only to find a plate missing. She goes to collect the missing one from the new owner of the house, and becomes involved in a grotesque adventure.
‘The house sprang up suddenly on a knoll ringed with rotting trees, encompassed by an old brick wall…It was a square built, substantial house with “Nothing wrong with it but the situation,” Miss Pym decided…She noticed at the far end of the garden, in the corner of the wall, a headstone showing above the colourless grass’.
The person who answers the door presents a startling appearance: ‘Her gross, flaccid figure was completely shapeless and she wore a badly cut, full dress of no colour at all, but stained with earth and damp from where Miss Pym supposed that she had been doing some futile gardening…another ridiculous touch about the poor old lady was her short hair(In that era, women were not expected to cut their hair at all).
An absurd conversation follows between Martha Pym and the owner:-
‘“…I generally sit in the garden.”
“In the garden? But surely not in this weather?”
“You get used to the weather. You have no idea how used one gets to the weather.”
“I suppose so,” conceded Miss Pym doubtfully…’
Later on, the person whom Martha Pym assumes to be the last owner Miss Lefain informs her visitor that she frightens people away from the house:
‘”Frighten them away!” replied Martha Pym. “However do you do that?”
“It doesn’t seem difficult; people are so easily frightened, aren’t they?”
‘Miss Pym suddenly remembered that Hartleys had the reputation of being haunted – perhaps the queer old thing played on that. “I suppose you’ve never seen a ghost?” she asked pleasantly. “I’d rather like to see one, you know –”.’
This story can be found on project Gutenbeburg and various other sites for classic stories.
Then again, fantasy stories, whether comic, tragic, or both, are often an enjoyable form of escape from everyday concerns.Rebecca Lochlann’s ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series is excellent for that. I have expressed my admiration for the series before, and here is the link on amazon here
Then again, there is nothing like a fairy story for a temporary escape from reality, and when it is funny, then it is perfect. Here is one of my all time favourites, ‘The Blackwood Crusade’ by Jo Danilo. here
And finally, how about vampires for a way of getting away from everyday troubles? Lauryn Apirl’s ‘Unearthed After Sunset’ is horrifying and funny at the same time. here
I have always revelled in silly names, particularly in novels: Gussie Fink-Nottle and Cyril Bassington-Bassington, anybody?
While writing my latest, I was delighted to find out that there was such a surname as ‘Swindle’, and I have used it for the real name of one of the characters, though that isn’t revealed until near the end, when he is revealed as the eighteenth century conman that he is.
This is a return to the tradition recently regarded as naive, with the use of characters’ names to indicate their place in the scheme of things, their morals, etc.
This tradition held for a long while; in the days before novels,the greatest of writers ever, one William Shakespeare, went in for it. He named some of his characters merely to raise a laugh. For instance, there is the broad comedy of ‘Pompey Bum’, the clown in ‘Measure for Measure’.
Henry Fielding wrote in the mid eighteenth century, with characters so named, ie, the supposedly wholly admireable (to my mind, often priggish) Squire Allworthy in ‘Tom Jones’. Sometimes, the name is clearly an ironical comment, as in Sophia Weston’s untrustworthy lady’s maid being called Mistress Honour.
The tradition lasted a long time. Robert Tressell’s novel ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ was published in 1914, using the same approach. The inadmirable characters – they don ‘t have enough stature to be proper vlllains – have ludicrous names, ie, Crass, the insensitive foreman, Slyme, the devoutly religious seducer (presumably pronounced ‘slime’ rather than ‘slim’), the hypocritical and flatulent cleric the Reverend Belcher, a Mrs. Starvem, an ineffectual do-gooder called ‘MT Head’ and so on.
Thackeray also delighted in comical or satirical names and titles. For instance, there is the Countess of Bareacres, the debauched Marquis of Steyne (presumably we are meant to think of blotches on family trees), I believe one of his titles is someting on the lines of The Order of the Royal Bed Pan. Such facts are related by the shadowy presence of one Tapeworm, who is seems also featured in ‘The Book of Snobs’. Sir Pitt Crawley’s first name is presumably meant to bring to mind a cesspit or perhaps infernal regions. There are the Ensigns Stubble and Spooney, who worship George Osborne, and Glorvina O’Dowd of the absurd first name, sister of the tyrannical Peggy O’Dowd.
Even admirable characters have absurd names in this book, ie, William Dobbin, though the nearest thing to a hero in the book, has the name of a carthorse, while Lady Jane, the rake Rawdon Crawley’s sister-in-law who wins him over to wish to reform, has the maiden name ‘Sheepshanks’.
As with many classic comic novels, the servants are given ridiculous names. There is Mrs Blenkinsop the Sedley’s housekeeper, Miss Crawley’s butler Bowls, Pitt Crawley’s butler and fellow toper Horrocks and his daughter Betsy Horrocks, a girl who accepts Pitt Crawley’s rebarbative embraces, and whom Becky Sharp thinks of as ‘the Ribbons’.
Another manservant with an unfortunate name I can call to mind are the inappropriately called Strutt in the ghost story ‘The Magic Saucepan’, written around 1927. As befits a ‘well trained valet’ is entirely servile and devoted to his master, calling him ‘sir’ at very fifth word and giving him an ‘alcohol rub’ (whatever that is) when he is suffering from the ghostly effects of the eponymous magic saucepan.
Then there is the manservant of Lord Fayne in Charles Garvice’s ‘The Outcast of the Family’ (1894) who shares the unfortunate name of Stubbles with Thackeray’s ensign. Another well trained valet, he remains wooden faced as he brings his master a whisky and soda first thing in the morning, following orders to ‘look sharp about it’ .
The last we see of him is when Lord Fayne plans to reform, which involves catching a train out of London and earning his living by wandering about the country playing the violin as a sort of rural busker. Stubbles is thrown some money and told to await his return, but we never hear of him again, so perhaps he is still waiting, complete with wooden expression, at the end of the story.
When I was writing ‘Ravensdale’, I was delighted to come across the surname ‘Toothilll (which means ‘dung heap’) and used it for a Reynaud Ravensdale’s first love Georgiana’s tiresome family.
Another wonderfully silly name is ‘Tupper’ which may have had an obscene meaning and been based on the activities of the ram when used as the ‘tup’ or stud. I used that for Rudolph Tupper, a New Age guru who falls foul of the anti-hero of Alex Sager’s novel, who arrives in this dimension determined on revenge. His fellow guru is Claribelle Johnson, which I couldn’t resist as a risible combination of the ornate and the prosaic.
In ‘The Villainous Viscount’ the anti-hero, plagued by a family curse, consults a Professor of Magic, Markmanship, Swordsmanship, Languages and Subtle Influences’. His name is Ludovico Sharman…
Another name I really must use is ‘Toplady which certainly has an obscene meaning, as does Toplass.
I am hoping that nobody reading this has one of those names…
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.
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.’
In my last post, I wrote about the realistic – and fairly dismal – depiction of a governess’ life in the England of the first part of the nineteenth century to be found in Anne Bronte’s ‘Agnes Grey’ , and contrasted her dismal life with the wild and harrowing adventures that are Jane Eyre’s improbable lot.
Both stories end happily because the man with whom they have fallen in love wants to marry them. Well, I suppose it is only fair to point out that both are in a position of comparative independence when they receive these proposals. Agnes is a respected teacher working in her mother’s school by the time that the former curate, now rector Mr Weston proposes to her, whereas Jane Eyre has inherited a fortune by the time she returns to visit the temporarily blinded Mr Rochester.
There was, of course, another famous author who wrote about the adventures of a governess – WM Thackeray in ‘Vanity Fair’ describes the lurid adventures of the heartless and manipulative Becky Sharp. She of course, has been at boarding school with Amelia. On the death of her alcoholic painter father, the proprietor Miss Pinkerton has taken her on to teach French to her pupils.
At this time, Becky shows her ill nature, and her only friend is the good natured Amelia Sedley, a rich merchant’s daughter loved by everybody. Now Amelia is leaving to be a young lady waiting for marriage to the son of another rich merchant, George Osborne. Becky longs to escape Miss Pinkerton’s academy , even if it means she must be a governess. First, however, she is to stay for ten days with Amelia’s family at Russell Square. Here she tries to draw in Aurelia’s absurdly vain brother Jos into proposing to her, but when the snobbish George Osborne sabotages her plans, she has to go on to her post at the uncultured, mean Sir Pitt Crawley in Hampshire.
It is interesting that Mr Weston remarks to Agnes that another type of woman in her position as governess might have made sure that she received far better treatment than that which Agnes has accepted.
This puts one in mind of Becky Sharp. Through unscrupulous manipulation, through making herself useful to the insensitive old baronet (she does his accounts), by flattering the family members, pursuing her own advantage at all times and spending almost no time teaching her two girl pupils, who are left to their own devices, she soon acquires some influence in the household.
At first, Becky is treated with no consideration. On the way to Queen’s Crawley in Hampshire, she is made to travel outside, on top of the coach. But soon, through honing her skills of flattery and manipulation – she stops being outspoken and rebellious as she was at Miss Pinkerton’s – she makes herself indispensable in the household.
In this, of course, she is helped by the fact that the second Lady Crawley is in ill health and of no account in the household, and that Sir Pitt is lecherously fascinated by her, and she is obviously able to keep him at arms’ length very cleverly; then she is able to draw his stupid guardsman son Rawdon Crawley into marriage by refusing his own lecherous advances.
Perhaps Agnes Grey might have made her lot rather more comfortable by the use of some judicious flattery and the odd piece of flirtation, by taking her duties as a governess less seriously, by in fact, not adhering to moral principle.
Becky, by contrast, never allows scruples of any sort to get in the way of her pursuit of money and social advantage. She shows how entirely callous she can be in Brussels. Here she encourages the foolish and vain George Osborne to become wildly infatuated with her, so that he is eager to visit the Crawleys in ther rooms. Here Rawdon Crawley cheats George at cards out of very small fortune he has left to him after his father has disowned him. This leaves Amelia virtually destitute. Becky is completely indifferent to her fate, or how wretchedly jealous she makes Amelia.
Just as Agnes Grey would not be herself if she ever compromised on the issue of moral principle. neither would Becky Sharp be herself if she had any moral principles greater than self interest.
Yet it is not quite true that in the fictional world, nice guys finish last. They might, from the point of view of material wealth. But nevertheless, Agnes Grey marries for true love and lives modestly but comfortably with the man she loves.
By contrast, the fate of her vain and frivolous pupil Rosalie Murray, who like Becky, is manipulative and heartless, is a dismal one. She marries the debauched and unattractive Sir Thomas Ashby because she coverts a title. She soon comes to hate him when angered by her carrying on a flirtation with her old admirer Harry Meltham, he forces her to live in the country. Not only that, but unhappiness does away with her blooming complexion and female curves, and she faces a dismal future.
I first read Anne Brontë’s ‘Agnes Grey’ a long time ago – in my early twenties – about the time that I first read ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.
I believe a fair number of people consider it her masterpiece in its brevity and tight plotting. I can see it has those features, but I can’t agree that it is the better story . I infinitely prefer the excitement and Gothic drama of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ – but then, as a writer of Gothic myself, ‘I would say that, wouldn’t I?’
There are arguably faults in the structure of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’; I don’t know if the ‘story within a story structure’ used in it – also famously used by Emily Brontė in ‘Wuthering Heights’ – is the best method of revealing Helen Huntingdon’s former history. I personally think a series of shorter flashbacks might be more engrossing – but there are valid objections to two parralel stories as more confusing. It is a problem I know from my own experience when writing ‘Ravensdale’. There are also notorious faults in character portrayal in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ and other weaknesses.
Overall, thoughy, I found ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ to be a gripping story in the way that the quiet tale of the dismal existence of the unfortunate early Victorian governess is not. Probably, then, it is a matter of taste.
After all, defenders of the story would say that the quiet tone is the point. The story was written to highlight the miserable position of the governess in the UK of the mid nienteenth century, and could not by its very nature be exciting. Agnes Grey’s lonely existence as a governess contains precious little excitement, pleasure or even peace.
In her position as a social inferior to the family, while also not part of the domestic staff, she has nobody on her side, and no-one to talk to. She has no social life, and anyway, her wretched salary – £25 a year – is too low for her to be able to socialise, even if she could find a respectable escort to chaperone her. The families for whom she works don’t even assume that as a young girl she might actually want a little fun. In fact, her feelings are not considered at all.
She has a foreshadowing of this when she arrives at her first post after a long, cold journey: ‘The cold wind had swelled and reddened my hands, entangled and uncurled my hair, and dyed my face a of a pale purple. ..(Mrs Bloomfield) led me into the dining-room where the family luncheon had been laid out. Some beefsteaks and half cold potatoes were set before me, and while I dined upon these, she sat opposite, watching me (as I thought) and endeavouring to sustain something like a conversation. ..In fact, my attention was almost wholly absorbed I my dinner; not from ravenous appetite, but from distress at the toughness of the beefsteaks, and the numbness of my hands, almost palsied by their five hours exposure to the bitter wind… With a feeble attempt at a laugh, I said, ‘My hands are so benumbed with the cold that I an scarcely handle my knife and fork.’ ‘I dare say you would find it cold,’ replied she with a cool, immutable gravity that did not serve to re-assure me.’
Unfortunately for Agnes, the husband is even less approachable and often downright rude, while the children are not only completely undisciplined and unmanageable, but impossible to teach. The parents will not back up any of Agnes’ attempts to get them to learn their lessons. Meanwhile they constantly complain of their offsprings’ apparently learning nothing.
Not only that, but some of the family members encourage the obnoxious ‘Master Tom’ in his cruelty to animals, culminating in the notorious scene where Agnes immediately kills a brood of nestlings rather than leave them to his torments.
Her next post is not quite as exhausting. Her charges are older, while the two unruly boys are sent off to boarding school after some months. Still, the vain Rosalie and the hoydenish Matilda Murray make life anything but easy for Agnes, and the constant snubs that were a governess’ daily lot are a source of great unhappiness to the sensitive Agnes:
‘…(As) none of the afore-mentioned gentlemen and ladies ever noticed me, it was disagreeable to walk beside them, as if listening to what they said, or wishing to be thought one of them, while they talked over me or across, and if their eyes, in speaking, chanced to fall on me, it seemed as if they looked on vacancy – as if they either did not see me, or were very desirous to make it appear so.’
If the Bloomfields – who are portrayed as nouveau riche – are ill mannered in their treatment of a dependant, it seems extraordinary that more established families would not have been taught more gracious manners.
Finally, Agnes does find love and happiness. This is after a sub-plot involving the heartless predatory flirtatiousness of Rosalie, who having humiliated the arrogant Rector, moves on to other potential victims.
On the characters in the novel, some of these are excellently done, though it is a shame that so few of them are more likable. In fact, Agnes comments on this dearth of congenial minds about her. No doub it is based on the author’s own experience in the posts she occupied as governess, as critics have often noted how both of Agnes’ employer’s families are based on the two for which she worked as govenress.
My own impression is that while the ending is a happy one, it is so muted in tone that the pervasive melancholy of the novel is what struck me in this reading as much as last time. There is too little happiness in it, coming in at the very end. Unlike Victorian readers, I find ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ far less distressing. The humour there is more robust, and so is the temperament of the heroine.
Many other governesses in fiction have a less dismal time of it. Charlotte Brontë’s Jayne Eyre, is plunged into Gothic adventures despite her lowly position as governess, but this is solely dependent on the whims of her master Mr Rochester, who is obliging enough to fall in love with her. I have to admit that I enjoyed that Gothic story, too, far more than the low key and realistic ‘Agnes Grey’.
A story that I didn’t enjoy – though full of wild and improbable adventure involving a governess – is the 1895 one by Charles Garvice that I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog, ‘The Marquis’.
This novel, which ranks as literature rather lower than that of the Brontė sisters, revolves around the said Marquis falling in love with his governess. He has been decidedly wicked, but he repents very soon after meeting the noble Constance , governess to his annoying Little Lord Fauntleroy-esque annoying nephew. She has been forced to earn her living as a governess after her father becomes insane after discovering a formula which rivals that of the Alchemists.
Though the Marquis eyes have to flash and Constance has to turn from red to white (but never blue) innumberable times during the improbable happenings that follow, the happy ending is naturally a foregone conclusion. Written as appalingly as only Charles Garvice can, this heroine of this piece of nonsense is so unsympathetic that for my own part, I felt far more anxiety about the fate of Matilda Murray’s terrier, sold to the cruel local rat catcher, but finally rescued by the hero.