Victorian Sexuality and Prudery: Some Victorian Novels



The following article follows a line that has become more popular in recent years. This suggests that the previous view, that Victorian’s were repressed regarding sexuality, and prudish to the point of hiding the legs of tables by long tablecloths, was at the least, exaggerated. It argues that in fact, sexuality was widely discussed in the UK – and by implication various other countries –of Victorian times.

Here is the link:

It is an interesting article, but I find it odd that the writer insists that:

‘These stereotypes of high prudery were famously critiqued by Michel Foucault as the ‘repressive hypothesis’: the idea that the Victorians could not mention sex. Foucault pointed out that, far from being silenced, sex was spoken everywhere in the 19th century in a wide range of contexts including the law, medicine, religion, education. Much academic and popular work since has considered the many ways in which Victorians did experience and speak of desire. ‘

The author goes on to state that for instance, Queen Victoria made her desire for Prince Albert obvious in the following quote: –

‘ Albert really is quite charming, and so excessively handsome, such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate moustachios and slight but very slight whiskers; a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist.’

Certainly, it is a commonplace that Queen Victoria was in love with her husband and no doubt enjoyed their physical relationship. But I think applying modern awareness to a nineteenth century girl’s admiration of a man’s appearance is hazardous. There will, of course, be a great deal of unconscious sexual desire in the admiration – but how far this is any way recognized consciously or whether an overt expression of desire is intended  is a completely different matter. It was all swept under the carpet as not to be mentioned in public.

No doubt many men did indeed write about sexuality – for a male readership.  The author of the article does acknowledge how great a role the indoctrination of women as ‘angel of the house’ and asexual played in their repression in the UK of the Victorian age. As always, of course, there would be individual exceptions.

The writings of the German born Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)  is the most outstanding example of an outspoken Victorian man – and the bawdy writing of the French novelist Ėmile Zola  -who perhaps was part of the reason why ‘French novels’ were synonymous with indecency  – another.

What was considered suitable reading material for a man was very different from what was  seen as suitable reading for females. The double standard, already well established regarding sexual morality, became applied to sexual knowledge itself by this era.

In ‘Pamela’ the priggish heroine is fully aware exactly what it is that her caddish master wishes to do to her. Descriptions of his frustrated attempts and his thrusting his hand in her bososm abound. This all changes in later novels.

And in the case of Freud, he did indeed write at length about sexual desire, but the reaction of horror and disgust of many of his contemporaries to his giving a prime place in the psyche to sexuality surely indicates how problematic writing about sexuality was, particularly that of women.

One only need read Victorian novels by, or for, woman, or written ‘for family entertainment’  to see this. I shall use as examples several I know well.

For instance,  Elizabeth Gaskell, writing in the mid rather than the  late Victorian era – the decades traditionally regarded as less prudish – got into all sorts of difficulties, precisely because of the sexual reticence which she brought to her writing.

This made it impossible for her to reveal in her novel ‘Ruth’ the exact circumstances of Ruth’s seduction at the hands of her admirer Mr Bellingham. We leave Ruth being urged by him to go away with him, and when we next meet them, they are openly living together outside wedlock on a prolonged visit to North Wales. Mrs Gaskell felt herself unable to write about what had happened in the interval. She indicates that Ruth in her innocence does not know that she is ‘living in sin’ until a remark repeated by a child reveals it to her.

‘Fancying’ together with  a heroine who is ‘no prude’ and courted by a physically appealing man and a far less attractive one are dealt with in her later historical novel ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ (1863), about which I just might have written before. It is assumed by various critics that Elizabeth Gaskell was depicting a heroine with a strong sexual urge, and that she found this less disturbing in a heroine who is an illiterate country girl at home with tending animals.

I think this is questionable. Just as ‘lovers’ had a different meaning in Victorian times,  meaning only ‘romantic admirers’ so, almost certainly, did ‘fancy’, which possibly meant only ‘romantic admiration and liking’.

Because of Elizabeth Gaskell’s reticence, as I have said in my article in ‘The F Word’ on this novel, it is impossible to distinguish if Sylvia is supposed to find her persistent admirer Hepburn physically unattractive or to be indifferent to him. It may even have been that the author saw the heroine as indifferent to the sexual act with all men, even her hero Charley Kinraid. She is shown as having a ‘virginal fierceness’.

Certainly, the handsomeness of the one, and the plainness of the other is emphasized; the modern reader is left with the impression that Sylvia is sexually frustrated in a marriage loveless on her side, but given that her age had imposed such reticence on the author, we cannot be certain of this.

George Elliot, whose writing Elizabeth Gaskell admired, but whose unmarried status she abhorred, was equally circumspect in ‘Adam Bede’.  She makes no  mention of how Hetty’s pregnancy has escaped the hero’s notice, and everyone else’s – as she is surely at least seven months pregnant when she runs  away from home, one would think her expanding girth was obvious by that time, tight lacing or not.

Dickens’ hero Charles Darnay and his heroine Lucie Manette in Dicken’s 1859 novel, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ are depicted vividly as falling in love in opposite sides of the courtroom, when the former is on trial for treason against the British crown. No doubt the hero’s facing the possibility of being hanged, drawn and quartered adds fuel to their developing passion as Lucie is obliged to act as an unwilling witness for the prosecution.


However, this pair unfortunately thereafter degenerate into a typical asexual Dicken’s couple. Their children are lay saints, possibly as a result. On their honeymoon Darnay is depicted – the sensualist! – as standing with his ‘hand on Lucie’s heart’. However, she is clearly unaroused by this corporal act. She calmly lectures him on  how he must be kind to the man who cynically saved his life in the treason trial – his double Sidney Carton.

I think it is difficult to find an age which considered it ‘indecent’ to mention a man’s trousers – seriously! – as anything but one which was dominated by prurience and a fair degree of hypocrisy.  At the end of the nineteenth century, we have the writer of romantic melodramas for the mass market, Charles Garvice, describing the  outfit of the anti hero of ‘The Outcast of the Family’ . He describes in detail the costermonger’s outfit he wears as a sign of rebellion – his ‘absurdly short coat’  ‘vulgar cap’ and ‘red kerchief’, even the pearl buttons  on his gaiters-  but makes – Good Heavens no! – no mention of his trousers, or should I say, his ‘unmentionables’.

The heroine agrees to marry the slippery baddy, appropriately named ‘Stannard Marshank’. She certainly spends a lot of time shuddering at the touch of his lips on her hand, etc, and ‘white faced’ at the thought of their coming marriage.  Whether this is meant to be moral horror at intimacy with another man than the one she loves, or physical repugnance, is hard to say.

And I can’t resist adding another couple of books. In ‘Mrs Humphrey Ward’s’  ‘Marcella’ the hero breaks off his engagement with the heroine when he learns that the heroine has (unwillingly) been kissed on the lips by another man.

Then, in ‘Dracula’, Mina Harker acknowledges that in walking down the street on her husband’s arm, she is actually breaking the rules of good conduct she taught as a mistress at a select boarding school for young ladies. This contrasts with the Regency age, when a woman was actually allowed to be ‘handed up into a carriage’ or ‘taken into dinner’ (rather as if she couldn’t move on her own voilition) by any man of her acquaintance. Promiscuity indeed…

The case of the seduced innocent seems to be an obvious case of the mistaken nature of the assumption that regarding sexual matters, it was easy for naïve Victorian women to ‘read between the lines’. We belong to an enlightened age. We know what authors are hinting at, and chaperones, too, in their veiled warnings of ‘man’s nature’ and hints at sin. We know the physical acts that lie behind  these veiled allusions . Sheltered Victorian women too often did not.

Even in a later age, women often did not associate admiring a man’s physical attractions with sexual feelings and their expression. Barbara Cartland was by her own admission so disgusted in the 1920’s  when the mystery of human procreation was rather belatedly explained to her, that she broke off her first engagement.

These few examples – and I could quote dozens more – make me think that the reputation Victorians had for a prurient sex obsession was fully deserved, if later exaggerated for humourous purposes.

In the next age, by contrast, the ‘elephant in the room’  became death, a topic about which the Victorians were extremely open. In fact, a Victorian novel without a death bed scene was hardly worth opening. The Victorian emphasis on death, which, in the absence of effective hygiene and medical treatment, could come at any time, even to the young and healthy, was seen in the twentieth century as morbid.

I don’t think that it was. I  personally would argue that they were right, to embrace its inevitability, and later ages are wrong to behave as if it is an indecent, ‘not quite nice’ topic.

But then I have been accused of being morbid myself, what with  my affection for walking in graveyards.





Characters’ First Names: How Do Authors Choose Them?

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

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 ‘Lodovico’ 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.

Hi 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…


‘The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories’ edited by Robert Aikman – Wonderful Classic Tales of Terror

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I recently re-read ‘The Fontana Book of  Great Ghost Stories’ Edited by Robert Aikman, dated 1964.  I would still say that this is one of the best collections of tales of terror – not all of them are truly ghost stories – that I have ever read.

To some extent, I would say that for sheer spine tingling thrills, I have never found this collection to be beatable.

Of course, arguably some of it might be ‘learned response’ if that is the term. I did read it first at an impressionable age, and I was living in a notoriously haunted house at the time, the infamous and then isolated ‘Plas Isaf’.

My father, mother and sister were all in the house at the time; but they were corridors away as I foolishly sat up late, fnishing reading ‘The Wendigo’ by a dying fire, with the wind howling outside.

And yes, it did come from  – wait for it – those inexhuastable bookshelves in my family houses, like ‘The Outcast of the Family’  ‘Eve and the Law’ and so many others…

All the short stories in the anthology are written by renowned authors –the one by D H Lawrence, which naturally is largely psychologically based, came as a surprise.

There is also a very peculiar, and horrifying, tale which is more of a horror story, ‘The Travelling Grave’ written by L P Hartley, who of course wrote that wonderfully evocative tale of the Edwardian schoolboy in ‘The Go Between’.

The anthology contains some funny ghost stories. I still find ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen grotesquely hilarious, and there is an amusing tale about a landed pirate ship.

There are also ones on conventional lines – ‘The Old Nurses’ Tale’ by Elizabeth Gaskell is a wonderful example of the haunted house and threatened innocent variety. ‘Squire Toby’s Will’ by Sheridan le Fanu is of course, another wonderful example of the traditional ghost story.

The tales of terror, include  some perturbing ones by comparatively recent authors, such as that sinister one about deserted waterways which has always puzzled me by Elizabeth Jane Howard  ‘Three Miles Up’. There is also one by the editor Robert Aikman, ‘The Trains’.

This is an extraordinary story; it is partly psychological, partly a tale of terror with horribly plausible elements, and it has many unexplained elements. It is set in the 1950’s, when trains were in fact, still the predominate form of transport for most people in the UK, before the sorry onset of car culture.

I can date the age I was when I read it, because that was the day I made my first apple crumble at school, and the scent of apple and cinnamon was in the air when we were re-heating it and I began reading, ‘The Wendigo’.  In fact, ‘The Wendigo’ will always make me think of apple crumble, and vice versa.


I still find ‘The Wendigo’  a truly terrifying story, for all the florid language of Défago when he is taken by it is so improbably poetic: ‘Oh, these fiery heights, my burning feet of fire’ etc.

My own prosaic memories about apple crumble aside, the depiction of those huge, Canadian forests, the Northern Woods, struck me with awe then and does to this day:

‘And now he was about to plunge even beyond the fringe of wilderness where they were camped into the virgin heart of uninhibited regions as vast as Europe itself…The bleak splendours of these remote and lonely forests rather overwhelmed him with a sense of his own littleness. The stern quality of the tangled backwoods which can only be described as merciless and terrible, rose out of those far blue woods swimming on the horizon…’

It is an alarming story. Défego’s fate also seems to be unfair, in so far as he is not some casual tourist, viewing these secret regions for a thrill. On the contrary, he dreads the Wendigo as an apparition personifying the awe these forests should inspire:

‘”All the same, I shouldn’t laugh about it, if I was you,” Défego added, looking over Simpson’s shoulder into the shadows. “There’s places in there that nobody won’t ever see into. – Nobody knows what lives in there, either.”’

I must confess my ignorance as to whether that is still true today as it undoubtedly was in 1910, when this story was written,  before so much of the forest was destroyed. I assume it is, but I may well be wrong.

Algernon Blackwood, who of course, wrote the story, does seem to have changed the Native American legend, although I gather that there are many versions of the legend.

The Wickipedia entry states:

‘In Algonquian folklore, the wendigo or windigo is a cannibal monster or evil spirit native to the northern forests of the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes Region of both the United States and Canada.[] The wendigo may appear as a monster with some characteristics of a human, or as a spirit who has possessed a human being and made them become monstrous. It is historically associated with cannibalism,, murder, insatiable greed, and the cultural taboos against such behaviours.’

In these regions of harsh winters and traditional food shortages, to me that makes sense as the behaviour of the predatory Wendigo in Blackwood’s tale does not. It does not take its victims for food, but is described as a ‘moss easter’ and when the terribly damaged Défego returns from his sojourn with it, he reveals that he too has become ‘a damned moss eater’.

Therefore, the Wendigo does not take its victims to eat, and the sheer illogic of its bothering to take victims at all makes it the more horrible. I have heard that some of our relatives, the great apes, like humans, keep small orphaned baby animals as pets. Perhaps this is the explanation for the Wendigo’s behaviour?  Perhaps it doesn’t like people intruding on its domain.  Or – worse – perhaps its actions are meaningless to the human mind?

I thought one of the few weaknesses of the tale was the fact that it seems the Wendigo initially tries to pull the sleeping Défago from his tent.

That so powerful a monster should be temporarily defeated in this merely by Simpson’s wakening seem slightly absurd, though still horrible. The guide might even have been saved.

Another weakness is, of course, the racist assumptions about Native Americans of the era.  Inevitable though they may be for 1910, they are dismal to come across.

Overall, though, it is a powerfully written and wonderfully evocative story, and like all the stories in this anthology, it sums up images that you will never forget.

Perhaps one of the reasons that these stories are so good is that they come from an age when ‘short stories’ could begin at 3,000 words – ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ is this length – and go up to near novella length at approximately 14,000 words, as in ‘The Wendigo’.  There was none of the modern pressure to write an extremely brief short story.

This post is too long for me to continue with accounts of the wonderfully comic, ‘The Crown Derby Plate’, or the puzzling and sinister story, ‘The Trains’. I will have to make that my next post.



Writing, Real Life Events, and the Works of Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Georgette Heyer and Louisa M Alcott

3f2d6d5a693742ecd2ef850e8192b69eWriters, of course, would not be human if many of the circumstances of their lives did not affect their fiction. Even writers of the fantastic must combine these impressions with the imaginative creations in their books.
The authors world of fantasy is to some extent part of his or her particular ‘take’ on reality, his or her attempt, often, to make sense of it.

This connection between real life events and themes in a writer’s fiction is often obvious when reading a little of the biography.

This is so, for instance, the writing of Louisa May Allcott, writer of ‘Little Woman’ and the rest (and also of some lesser known and wonderfully lurid gothic pieces such as ‘A Fatal Love Chase’). She went through the tragedy of losing a younger sister to a long and painful decline – how she reconciled that, and the other suffering and injustice she saw all about her, with her faith in a God of mercy was clearly to some extent one of the themes of ‘Little Women’.Louisa_May_Alcott_headshot

Outrage at witnessing the suffering and injustice all about was, of course, one of the motivating factors of Victorian writer Charles Dickens. It is well known that his miserable personal experience of being confined to a debtor’s prison on his father’s bankruptcy, and being forced to work in a blacking warehouse at the age of twelve, forever shaped his attitude towards the dispossessed, inspiring such works as ‘Oliver Twist’ ‘Hard Times’ and ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’.

It is lesser known – though still fairly well known – that in middle age he outraged the family values he notoriously voiced in his magazine ‘Household Words’ by separating the wife by whom he had fathered ten children due to his obsession with the eighteen year old actress Ellen Ternan.200px-Ellen_Ternan

The character of Lucie Manette in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and of Estella in ‘Great Expectations’ are reputedly based on Dickens’ perception of Ellen Ternan. This is intriguing, as while Lucie Manette has in common with her husband Charles Darney a good deal of insipidity – Estella certainly has not. She is cold and heartless, brainwashed by the embittered and jilted Miss Havisham into being a man hater.

Though then, and for some time afterwards, Dickens insisted that Ms Ternan was as ‘innocent as one of my own daughters’ – his unfeeling treatment of his wife appalled many fellow literary figures, including WM Thackeray, who remarked tersely, ‘Poor matron’ and the devout Elizabeth Gaskell, who regarded him very coldly thereafter.
Elizabeth Gaskell was always admired as – unlike her contempary George Elliot – a wholly respectable, devout and exemplary female author.

I have always thought this was to underestimate her subtlety  and her irony – ‘Mrs Gaskell’ was a sharp commentator on and social and moral issues. Her novels ‘Mary Barton’ on the industrial poor of Manchester and ‘Ruth’ on a seduced seamstress aroused some outrage among contemparies.

Calm as Elizabeth Gaskell’s domestic life was, her biographer Winifred Gerin notes a connection between her personal life and her writing, and it is an intriguing one for a Gaskell Geek like myself.Cousin-Phillis

In 1857 the daughter with whom she was closest, Meta, had become engaged to a charming and dashing Captain Hill of the Madras Engineers. Some months later, she came by information that made her question his character, and as he made no attempt to defend himself against the charges, while his sisters were forced to concede that the stories were true, Meta broke off the engagement.

The Gaskells never revealed to anyone else what these charges were. Perhaps they were womanising, for the romantic interest in Elizabeth Gaskell’s next novel ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ is certainly a Lothario. Winifred Gerin suggests that in ‘The first long novel that she wrote after the event, “Sylvia’s Lovers”, the plot is deeply and sustainedly concerned with the subject of the suffering and perils of ill-judged love’ while she writes of ‘The extrovert Kinraid, whose rattling talk and easy manners with women is both entertaining and convincing, while most subtly conveying the hollow core within. Could Kinraid have been based on Captain Hill?’

Meta, while maintaining a cheerful and busy appearance, long mourned the loss of an admired love object in Captain Hill, so that her health eventually suffered a prolonged lapse. Elizabeth Gaskell’s novella ‘Cousin Phyllis’ also concerns the love of an deeply feeling young girl for a charming and emotionally shallow young man.

On a lighter note – both literary and emotional – a couple of years ago, I was amused to read in Jennifer Kloester’s biography of the novelist Georgette Heyer that she was largely ignorant of what was then termed ‘homosexuality’, even overt, let alone repressed.georgette-heyer_new2

This seems astonishing to modern understanding, but Heyer seems, for a twentieth century author, rather out of touch from modern thought about sexuality and the unconscious. Of course, according to the description of her son, using the jargon of the time, she was ‘Not so much square as cubed’.

By the account of her younger brother, she was so appalled when she realised in the 1950’s that one of her novels, ‘The Great Roxhythe’, was being interpreted as portraying the romantic love of the male narrator for the hero Roxhythe that she withdrew the book. It may also account for why, in her novels, there is a strong gay seeming relationship between some of the male characters. I have commented in another post,for instance, on the emotionally intense relationship between the hero Sir Tristram Shield and the secondary hero, his rebellious much younger cousin Ludovic Lavenham in ‘The Talisman Ring’.67bbfdae95268c648ca5903e441dd883

I was also amused to read in this biography that the ‘straight’ in all senses of the word Heyer routinely dosed herself with a combination of dexedrine and gin, so that she could write through the night. This, apparently, was part of the secret of her remarkable productivity.

Intriguingly, one of the well known side effects of the amphetamine dexedrine (besides increased alertness and performance) are mild hallucinations – and isn’t that just, if we are honest, what authors may well need?

That was in the days when drugs now perceived as potentially hazardous, and only available on prescription or on the street were easily obtainable from a chemists.

I quite envy her constitution in being able to do that routinely without a terrible headache…

Some Thoughts on Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’

Recently, I’ve been reading another classic I have been intending to get down to for years; Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’

To be unsparingly honest, I don’t know what I think of it; my feelings are mixed. I fid the style convoluted, but some of the descriptions are highly evocative, the characters are individual, and it’s a generally interesting theme – that of a young woman who wants to be an independent farmer at some point in that most patriarchal of environments, a time in the earlier part of the nineteenth century England (the precise date is never given, but it was published in 1875, and the writer refers the events as taking place in a former time period, perhaps some decades).

I assume it is post the time of the massive enclosures of the common land and the unrest caused by those, but even this isn’t clear, though they are never mentioned. The image is of an essentially unchanging, insular community, and the title, I assume (again, I haven’t read any of the literary criticism) is meant to be ironical in that intense passions and violent deeds, seductions and betrayals form a large part of the story (I duly note that it is a quote from ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’; I remember ‘doing’ that at seventeen in English Literature; I thought the first four verses inspired; the rest dull).

In fact, the passions and betrayals – with the exception of the unlucky seduced maidservant, Fanny Robbin – are largely confined to the four main characters, three men and a woman, who are not really typical of the rest of the community, being set above them either by natural talents (Gabriel Oak, who anyway comes from another village) and the oddly named Bathsheba Everdene, or social position ‘Farmer’ Boldwood, or both – Sergeant Frank Troy.

The rest of the cast are, it is true, motivated by the normal human passions, and fairly unheroic in general, although not invariably mean spirited. I vaguely remember hearing that Hardy was a great exponent of the simple virtues of country life (he must have found a willing acolyte in the later Charles Garvice, who thought it was a cure for wild young men, rather like a stint in the army).

Life for the people in this rural community in ‘Wessex’ is generally depicted as reasonably pleasant, if labour is hard, and the discomforts of life in a cramped, damp cottage without proper sanitation receive no notice (Gabriel Oak is presumably able to rise above such inconveniences as having no proper lavatory; after all, he is able to surmount most things, including losing his beloved to a man who doesn’t value her, and his fall from his former status as a farmer; Stoicism is his second name, and Steadiness his third).

In some ways, I preferred the extreme picture painted by Zola in his depiction of rural life around the same period in central France, ‘The Earth’.

There, passions run riot; greed is the order of he day, and the pastor has been driven out because the godless peasants refuse to pay their tithes. Lust, cruelty and incest are part of everyday life, and I have to say that in an extreme way it rang true for me of country life in highly isolated areas in England as recently as the late twentieth century. It made me laugh, as it reminded me of a certain area in North Devonshire in which I spent some years during my childhood, where the vicar had indeed been driven out by the locals (I played a prank in naming a particular  village in the title of a book in the library in my own novel, ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois).

This, however, is meandering from the point; Zola made a thing of writing contentious novels that attacked religion and treasured illusions generally, and exploding the traditional  French admiration of the stolid, worthy peasant, ‘Jacques Bonhomme’ was just a part of it. Hardy was fired by no such motives; it seems to me, by contrast, he wished in part to portray the delights of farming life in an age when it was under threat from growing industrialisation.

Bathsheba, then, is an unusual heroine by Victorian standards; she is an independent heroine who wants to make her own way in life. When her uncle takes the unprecedented step of bequeathing his farm to her, she runs the farm by herself. She does, through inexperience, run into some difficulties, but she is helped by the devoted Gabriel Oak, who in the former village where they both lived, before he lost his flock and his independence, was her rejected suitor.

Trouble arrives the shape of the dashing, handsome, philandering and unreliable Sergeant Troy, who courts Bathsheba with displays of sword play and gallantry. Bathsheba is soon hopelessly infatuated with him, and ready to jeopardise her future independence to make him hers (marriage in early nineteenth century England deprived a woman of all legal rights and all her properly became her husband’s on marriage).

The author remarks: ‘When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength, she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away’.

I can’t take exception to that; it’s still horribly true today; it is an unusual woman, who, once she succumbs to romantic attachment to a man, can see him or her circumstances objectively at all, this inevitably being bound up by the notions of romantic love and emotional dependency which woman are encouraged to cultivate.

There is more excuse for Bathsheba for adopting this course than many a woman in our own age. As a woman living in a small rural community in an age of unquestioned notions of female virtue and before effective birth control, she cannot indulge her passion for Troy outside marriage. In that case, when due disillusionment came, she could suggest a parting of the ways. Instead, she marries him.

I haven’t finished the book, but I can see that Sergeant Troy is destined to come to a bad end; he proves himself a ne’er do well, and refuses to take the sensible counsel of Gabriel Oak and so risks the harvest while engaging in a drinking spree with the labourers at the Harvest Festival.

We have seen nothing of Bathsheba and Tory’s married life, but we gather from her hint to Gabriel Oak at this time, ‘I may soon die’ that she is already, a few weeks after the ceremony, very unhappy and sees that she has made a fatal error.

A few weeks later, the run away servant maid Fanny Robbin turns up again, and dies in childbirth in a local warehouse. The reader, unlike the heroine, knows that Troy is her seducer, and that he would have married her except that she went to the wrong church, after which he left in a rage.

Troy is a strange character. Seemingly happy to forget Fanny Robbin before (one assumes he didn’t know that she was pregnant, as the dates would make it very early for him to do so at that time of their proposed wedding) , he undergoes a violent reaction of grief and remorse.

When by a series of unfortunate co-incidences, the poor girl’s body is taken to Bathsheba and Troy’s farmhouse, the superficial Troy furiously rejects the woman he has married in favour of his dead former love.

Reverentially kissing the dead girl’s face, he exclaims: ‘That woman is more to me, dead as she is, than you were, or are, or can ever be…You are nothing to me.”

He then spends all his (really, Bathsheba’s) money on a headstone for Fanny Robbin and leaves the area. Circumstances combine to give the impression that he has been drowned, and he stays away for many months. Meanwhile, the strangely obsessive Farmer Boldwood has resumed the persistent courtship of Bathsheba that Troy’s advent interrupted, and the faithful and steady Gabriel Oak continues to be just that, now employed as bailiff by both the traumatised Bathsheba and Boldwood.

This former dramatic scene, though extremely well depicted in Hardy’s usual melodramatic style, is unfortunately detracted from by the fact that we haven’t seen enough of Troy’s impulsive and superficial nature, or his quick boredom with life as a farmer and Bathsheba’s husband, to make it fully convincing. True, we have seen him desert Fanny Robbin after she failed to turn up at the ceremony, and we have seen him neglect the harvest, but the progress of the theme is too abrupt. More hints of the diverse and finally incompatible natures of the fickle Troy and the intense and loyal Bathsheba are needed to make it as dramatically effective as it could be.

Hardy is a great one for telling not showing. and he does this with a whole chapter devoted to Troy’s character, where we are told just what he is. This was probably in line with Victorian taste, but is considered inadequate in our own age, where readers want Troy to show them what he is.

Well, that’s my opinion of this climatic scene; what the general one is, I don’t know, because I’ve been lazy and left the literary criticism unread
(I haven’t even seen the recent film).

As I say, I have only read three quarters of the novel. In part it seems to be covering a theme to be found in various novels of both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries (and also the twenty-first) that of an attractive young woman who has tow admirers, one of whom is steady and lacking in obvious charm, the other of whom is flashily charming, but unreliable.

Examples of this I’ve read include George Elliot’s ‘Adam Bede’ and of course (sorry everyone, for mentioning it again) Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.

Hardy’s novel is complicated; of course, by the presence of a third admirer, and this is an original stroke. He is neither flashily attractive, nor steady but lacking in dash. Boldwood is handsome, but withdrawn; intense, but repressed. He is obviously a walking time bomb.

Next post; Some More Meandering Meditations on Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’.

Writers’ Terror of Writing a Derivative Novel: Comparing George Elliot’s ‘Adam Bede’ and Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’

220px-John_Collier_-_Hetty_SorrelI’ve always meant to read ‘Adam Bede’; I don’t know why really, except that I’ve seen it described in various places as one of George Eliot’s best novels, and while I was a little disappointed in ‘Middlemarch’ and ‘The Mill on the Floss’, I’ve always admired her as a woman who defied conventional morality in mid Victorian times. That took some courage indeed.

I’m about three quarters of the way through reading it now. It’s a very interesting book, and the historical detail is intriguing; but I can’t take to the rather shadowy heroine, Dinah Shore, at all. She is intended to be the next thing to a saint; I know it is notoriously hard to write about an interesting thoroughly good and unselfish person, and George Eliot deserves credit for trying; this particularly as she is depicting a devoutly religious person, while she herself was agnostic. But I have to say this conventional spirituality is another sticking point for me; oblique references are made to damnation, and the idea of a Creator who is capable of meting out that fate raises my hackles.

Unfortunately, too, the same is true of the eponymous hero; I find his Protestant Ethic type of morality unappealing, even rebarbative; I daresay he is the sole of virtue and totally admirable, but if I find anyone sympathetic in the story, it is the pretty, silly Hetty Sorrel, so tragically deceived by her own hopes regarding the enduring nature of the charming but vain and selfish Arthur Donnithorne’s love for her.

I suspect that this reaction may be fairly typical; I haven’t read any literary criticism of the book yet. Still, it isn’t of this that I wanted to write, but about the influence that this novel so obviously had on Elizabeth Gaskell, and in her writing of a novel about which I have so often bored the reader – that’s right, ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ again!

I was startled when I came across some of the similarities in the character types and also, in incident in the two novels. This in turn led me to think about the modern obsession with avoiding at all costs, writing something ‘derivative’, the dread that so many writers have of being accused of copying some theme or idea.

Elizabeth Gaskell, according to the biography of her by Winifred Gerin, read ‘Adam Bede’ sometime in 1857, and her admiration was complete. She wrote of it: ‘I think I have a feeling that it is not worth while trying to write, while there are such books as Adam Bede’ (I had the same sort of feeling myself after rereading ‘Bodily Harm’ by Margaret Attwood).300px-Whaling-dangers_of_the_whale_fishery

Eighteen-fifty-seven was the year in which Elizabeth Gaskell visited Whitby (Yorkshire, UK, for non UK readers of this blog) and decided to write a story about the whaling community there during the French Revolutionary Wars, and the activities of the press gang on a whaling community at that time. ‘Adam Bede’ is also set during the French Revolutionary Wars, and in partly in Yorkshire, but it is focused on in an inland farming community. However, in other ways the influence of George Elliot’s novel on Elizabeth Gaskell is very obvious, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel is also partly about the local farming community.

Both novels deal with a rather foolish, very pretty, poorly educated young girl from a farming background who often works as dairymaid and who is loved by a steady admirer whose love she spurs in favour of the love of an unreliable, charming, dashing but superficial one with military connections.

In ‘Adam Bede’ these characters are respectively Hetty Sorrel, Adam Bede and Arthur Donnithorne, and in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ they are Sylvia Robson, Philip Hepburn and Charley Kinraid.

It is true that ‘Adam Bede’ deals with the then highly popular theme of the innocent girl seduced by the ‘gentleman’ and left pregnant, while ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ deals with the then equally popular story of the ‘returned sailor’ who comes back from years at sea to find he has seemingly been betrayed, his sweetheart having married someone else.

However, in both, besides the threesome of flighty, heedless girl and her two contrasting rival lovers, there is another main female character, a spiritual and deeply religious young woman who comes to love the steady, hard working man.

In ‘Adam Bede’ this is the lay preacher Dinah Shore (who is also very good looking, but indifferent to this and its affect on men) and in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ this role is fulfilled by plain Hester Rose, a Quaker who routinely does good works, and Hepburn’s fellow worker in the haberdashery shop.

I haven’t read to the end of ‘Adam Bede’ yet, but I know that Dinah Shore and Adam Bede finally come together in marital happiness, whereas Hester Rose’s love for Hepburn remains unrequited. Both novels contain comedic elements but an underlying tragic theme.

Both also focus much attention on the views of dissenters and various religious debates in the late eighteenth century; both have human and ineffective vicars.

All sorts of incidental details in Elizabeth Gaskell’s story illustrate the continuing influence of ‘Adam Bede’. For instance, Hetty Sorrel comes from a farming family; so does Sylvia Robson; Hetty often works as dairymaid, and is courted by Arthur Donnithorne in the dairy; the same is true of Sylvia Robson, courted by Charley Kinraid in hers. The intensity of the relationship between Hetty and Arthur is increased when they come together at a party celebrating his twenty-first birthday; Sylvia and Kinraid’s relationship takes a serious turn when they meet again at the Corney’s New Year’s party.

Adam Bede comes to suspect that Hetty has an unknown lover when he sees that she has a locket with someone’s hair in it; Philip Hepburn sees that Sylvia comes out of the room where she has been kissing Kinraid wearing a new ribbon he has given her.12618f13

Both women are confronted by their steady and jealous admirers about the unreliability of their preferred lovers; Hetty says to Adam Bede, ‘How durst you say so?’ and Sylvia says to Philip Hepburn, ‘How dare you come here wi’ yo’r backbiting tales?’

In ‘Adam Bede’ a culminating moment of the general merrymaking at Arthur’s coming of age party is the absurd hornpipe danced by Wiry Ben. In ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ the New Year’s party is concluded by Charley Kinraid dancing a hornpipe amongst the platters on the floor.

And so on, even down to the similar use of unusual phrases; for instance, in ‘Adam Bede’ the author writes of Adam’s love for Hetty ‘Tender and deep as his love for Hetty had been, so deep that the roots of it would never be torn away…’ and then we have in ‘Sylvia’s Loves’ of Sylvia’s love for Kinraid, ‘She had torn up her love for him by the roots, but she felt she could never forget that it had been…’

Of course, there are even more dissimilarities between the two novels besides the obvious one of the one being set inland, the other being set in a whaling community; Sylvia Robson may be initially vain and headstrong, but she is not a superficial character, while Hetty Sorrel is; Philip Hepburn gives in to his jealousy and overprotective feelings for Sylvia and acts against his sense of honour, while Adam Bede resists the temptation and so on.

There are, however, numerous other similarities of phrase, incident and character in the novels, and I think I have made the point that two novels can have certain strong similarities without this necessarily being a disgrace. It has often been pointed out that there are only so many plots (in an earlier post, I listed these) and so many types of character (it would be interesting to try and break these down into basic types, and list those).

Just as I said then, I think that modern authors should not allow themselves to become too paranoid about writing something that has certain similarities to something already written, or even to be afraid to explore a different treatment of an idea they come across in any already published book; still, I must admit I have fallen into that error myself.

A couple of years ago, I was fascinated by the idea of writing a dystopia which involved a bad fair warrior, a good dark warrior, a female Amazon type, a society shattered by a series of earthquakes, and various other features. When I came to read Rebecca Lochlann’s brilliant ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series, I found all these features there; in dismay, I broke off from writing any more of the said dystopia (fortunately I had only written about 10,000 words), imagining my cringing embarrassment if readers assumed I had copied the ideas.13076894

I now think that was a mistaken decision, and one of these days I ought to return to the idea (though I make no claims that my series would be as good as ‘Child of the Erinyes); different treatments using partly similar elements in a plot make for vastly different novels; the classics George Elliot’s ‘Adam Bede’ and Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ are encouraging evidence of that.

It is certainly true that some of the contemporary critics did see a similarity between some of the themes in ‘Adam Bede’ and those in ‘Sylvia’s Loves’ ; though I haven’t read any literary criticism of Adam Bede, I have read a fair amount for Gaskell’s novel, and came across some comparisons there.

For instance, a review in ‘the Reader’ of 1863 states of Gaskell’s character Philip Hepburn: ‘the conception is feeble, and the execution indistinct. Philip Hepburn is Sylvia’s lover and nothing more…we cannot help comparing him with Adam Bede, and the difference between the two impressions of character is the difference between one character written in loose sand, and one engraved on a gem…there is a superficial resemblance to George Elliot’s Hetty in the heroine, which is quite lost sight of as we advance.’

Perhaps, in light of such reviews, Elizabeth Gaskell was wise never to read them. Probably, comparisons are inevitable for writers; it is a part of the way the human mind works, even if comparisons are notoriously invidious; but I think it would be unfortunate if writers were put off writing a book because they have come on one with a similar theme, or even, to hesitate in writing a book using a theme they have come across which they would like to treat with a different approach.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ Protagonists and Antagonists and More Farce

Clarissa and LovelaceCaricature-1780-press_gangLucinda Elliot, ascending platform:

OK, so I am back again after escaping the clutches of that press gang in that time warp occasioned by my last post; here I am, restored to being a blogger sitting at my pc and typing up a geeky post and planning on making a cup of tea…

On protagonists and antagonists in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ then –(glances nervously about; no sign of anyone in old fashioned dress in the cyber hall). I have bored on about this before a fair amount.

Why does Gaskell have two male leads, and unsatisfactory ones at that, both a bit too inclined to the stereotypical, though in opposite ways? Why is one a cardboard hero type, one his shadow image?

It is almost as if Gaskell had drawn up a balance sheet and listed qualities on either side of it for Kinraid (clearly meant to be Sylvia’s notion of her ideal man) and Hepburn, something like this: –

Credit and Debit

Kinraid  (credit) Handsome

Hepburn (debit) Plain

Kinraid (credit) Recklessly brave

Hepburn (debit) Cautious

Kinraid  (credit) Sociable

Hepburn (debit) Withdrawn

Kinraid (questionable credit) Womaniser

Hepburn (debit) Invisible to women

Kinraid (credit) Jolly life and soul of the party

Hepburn (debit) Wallflower

Kinraid (credit) Raconteur

Hepburn (debit) Can’t tell a tale to
save his life

Philip Hepburn, then, is (in so far as past centuries understood these terms) totally uncool and a complete nerd.

And so on, with Hepburn’s only plus points being:

Kinraid  Light minded (debit)

Hepburn Serious and some (questionable credit)

Kinraid Reputation for fickleness (debit)

Hepburn Unswervingly constant (credit)

These latter qualities are the ones that swing it for Hepburn with Sylvia in the end and lead to their reconciliation on his deathbed.

Here, however, I don’t want to explore that (general sighs of relief from small cyber audience impressed into cyber room). I’ve done that often enough in past posts)  – but the question of why Gaskell, having posed the problem of having two opposing male leads, then went on to develop Philip Hepburn enough for him to come alive in the reader’s eyes, and left Charley Kinraid an oddly unrealised character.

12618f13I personally do not find Hepburn’s protestant ethic oriented, sexually repressed and grimly humourless persona remotely congenial; but I do concede the author makes a good job of bringing the character to life in the author’s eyes. I find his silence about his rival’s impressment, and not passing on his love message to Sylvia, so dismal that I could never bring myself to like him, but again the author does a clever job of providing excuses for him (Kinraid’s reputation as a heartbreaker as related by Coulson, etc; Bessy Corney’s insistence that she was engaged to him at the same time that he became engaged to Syvia, etc).

Graham Handley comments: –

‘Seen in terms of depths and sympathy, Philip is Kinraid’s superior on every count. It must be admitted that the amount of space devoted to each is uneven, and that we know and live with Philip as we do not know and live with Kinraid; we see Kinraid, his tenderness and his heartiness, his stance and his impact, from the outside. We share Philip’s reactions, temptations, frustrations, anguish and later physical agony from the inside.’

This is the crux of the problem. Philip Hepburn is given vivid life through internalisation; Charley Kinraid is not.

This might be because, as Jane Spencer suggests, the whaler is not cerebral or given much to original thought anyway (even if he can spin a fine yarn), so that Gaskell does not think his mental processes would be of much interest to the reader.

Or it may be, as Graham Handley suggests in his excellent ‘Oxford Notes’ on the novel, because mystery, about his motivations, history and his thought processes ends an element of fascination to the character: –

‘His colourful appeal is more important than the qualities of his mind…Gaskell does not give him depth; what she does do, with tamtalizing art, is to leave us always in doubt about him.
Nothing stimulates an interest in character so much as mystery; the mystery of half knowing the characters we meet. Is Kinraid’s reputation justified? Is Sylvia the real love of his life? Is he, in fact, a man whose eye is always on the main chance? His career, and advantageous marriage, would tend to reinforce this view…’

John MacVicar (the literary critic, not the ancient villain) suggests that Charley Kinraid was in fact Elizabeth Gaskell’s original hero, as is indicated by the fact her original title was ‘The Specksioneer’ but that her focus of interest changed over time (especially as it took her an unusually long time to write this novel; perhaps so much as three and a half years) to Philip Hepburn, the original antagonist.

As nobody who reads this blog can fail to know, I find this novel particularly fascinating for many reasons; but it is also intriguing as one where the antagonist has in fact, taken over through having too strong a voice.

I know from my own experience that giving the antagonist too vivid a voice can be a danger.highwayman_body

While I make no claims to have depicted in the antagonist of my spoof historical romance ‘Ravensdale’ as vivid an antagonist as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Philip Hepburn, I did, nevertheless, depict his consciousness.

This was partly because I found the motivation of pure greed of so many of the villains of historical romances using the clichéd theme I satirized – Wild Young Viscount is framed for murderer by machinations of a Conniving Cousin and next in line to an Earldom –-unsatisfactory; why shouldn’t unrequited love play a part, battling with envy?

But, here I encountered a problem; a number of readers tell me that they find my antagonist Edmund Ravensdale, despite his duplicitous behaviour, more sympathetic, precisely because they had access to his thoughts as they did not for those of the frequently insensitive but generally straightforward and open-hearted Reynaud Ravensdale.

There is of course, that cliché , ‘to know all is to forgive all’. This is fascinating food for thought.

End of Sane Bit of Post: Now for some absurdity…

[A familiar figure in eighteenth century naval captain’s uniform enters at the back of the hall.]

Lucinda Elliot [Turns, outraged]: Well, would you credit it! Here’s that Charley Kinraid back again. After I had ripped his character to shreds last week. Some of these fictitious creations have got an incredible nerve!..[waxes thoughtful].But in line with ‘To know all is to forgive all’ come and have that tot of rum…

Charley Kinraid: Now, that is more civil, I’ll take that kindly… And what’s more, so will t’other Seven Most Annoying Heroes you used such hard words of in yon post, namely: – Georgette Heyer’s  Marquis Vidal, Mary Renault’s Theseus, James Bond, Heathcliff, Charles Garvice’s Heriot Fayne, Viscount of Somewhere I’ve Forgotten and not forgetting Georgette Heyer’s Ludovic Lavenham, Earl of Somewhere Else…Rinaldo in pub

James Bond: Bond, James Bond, 0000007 [I’m in semi-retirement].

Theseus [strides in, followed by half a dozen adoring war prizes]: By the Great Lord Zeus, not a robber left on the Corinth Peninsula.

Heathcliff [goes over to kick in window to make the decor resemble that at Wuthering Heights] Curse it all, I have no pity! Let the worms writhe!

Vidal: Damme, by Hell and the Devil! A Plague Take Me! What was I saying? Clean forgot what I was saying…Many hands make light work, mayhap?

Ludovic Lavenham: [shoots out lights in chandelier] Whose for a game of cards? [throws down talisman ring]

Heriot Fayne: I’ll play in the dark. Give me a gargle of whisky…What am I saying? I promised What’s-her-name – the heroine in my book, that’s right, Eva –-I’d reform.

Lucinda Elliot [shouting over racket]: I can only apologise to the reader for these continual interruptions; normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Some Complete Madness: A Post Interrupted by Progatonist(s) and Antagonist(s) from Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.

Caricature-1780-press_gangLucinda Elliot: Here I go on to discuss the issue of the role of the ‘Protagonist and Antagonist in Elizaeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’. I warn you, when I get started on one of my favourite topics I go and on, so this post will probably stretch into three…

[The last words are shouted above the noise of scraping sounds as cyber chairs are shoved back and not particularly huge group that constitutes the audience votes with their feet.]

Lucinda Elliot: Is anyone still with me?

Reader (pauses in doorway) Nobody sane, anyway (leaves, shaking head in disbelief).

[Lucinda Elliot spies three remaining people in curiously old-fashioned dress at the back of the cyber hall. These are a fine handsome naval officer with dark hair almost in ringlets who flashes his white teeth in a friendly smile, a plain-looking and rather drooping man of the respectable shopkeeper type, and a female figure shrouded in a heavy veil].

Lucinda Elliot: Kinraid, I give you fair notice I won’t speak as your friend any more than as Philip Hepburn’s. By the way, that’s a pinch from Dobbin’s speech to Becky Sharp in ‘Vanity Fair’.

Kinraid (still smiling) I’m well aware of that, Ma’am. You will say that I am a shallow opportunist. You will argue that as a naval captain, I must of necessity have in my later meteoric naval career have colluded with the press-gang I once so violently opposed.
You will point out that: ‘In the French Revolutionary Wars,  it was often impossible for a ship to leave port without the captain having recourse to the press-gang, and as has been demonstrated by the research done for the ‘Hornblower’ novels, it was often equally impossible for the captain to be scrupulous about keeping to its legal requirements.’

You will go on to say that as Speksioneer of the ‘Good Fortune’ , I reputedly shot dead two press-gang members – by the by, that’s reputedly, Ma’am; I made no confession; as you know.  – You will point out that  I only escaped hanging for that through being ‘kicked aside for dead’. (winces at the memory).

You will then say my defenders must admit either that I was right to shoot them then, but wrong to collude with them as a Captain later, or that I was right to collude with them later and wrong to shoot them down then, but I cannot have been right on both occasions, as the press-gang invariably acted outside the terms of it’s legal remit. Am I right?

Lucinda Elliot: You are, mate. Then with regard to your supposed faithfulness to Sylvia during your three years’ absence at sea –

Kinraid: (suddenly notices the woman in veils huddled in the corner). Eh, yon’s not my missus Clarinda?

(The woman throws back her heavy veils.)

Kinraid and Hepburn (speaking for once, as one): Sylvia!!!

Sylvia: I think yon talkative female is right, for all her long words, and you both treated me ill. I didn’t know that about yon naval captain’s winking at the doings of the press-gang, Charley – I mean, Captain Kinraid, and I’m glad as I didn’t marry you to find that out later.

Kinraid (aside) Damn my eyes, but that’s fair saucy.

Hepburn: Ah, Sylvie. I made thee my idol. But thou made yon fickle, false Kinraid thine (glances at his watch). Time to count the takings in yon haberdashery.

Lucinda Elliot: Sit down, now you’re here.

Kinraid: (in a loud whisper) Yon females is main and grouchy. That comes of letting them out from under your thumb (to Sylvia). I don’t see how I used you ill, lass, I was faithful to you for the three years I was at sea after the press-gang took me.

Lucinda Elliot: I can easily disprove that feeble assertion.

Kinraid (starts guiltily) What? Ma’am, you can prove nothing. Yon author Mistress Gaskell  wrote my character too fause ever to be tied down, except by the press-gang, never by readers. The evidence about my womanizing is hearsay. The evidence that I’m a murderer is hearsay. I just happened to fall in love with a pretty heiress,but what then? That was just luck, and I made her money as came to me fair and square over to her, so you can’t even prove I’m a fortune hunter. It all comes along  o’ being on a whaler called ‘The Good Fortune’  amd gave me  t’luck that pulled me though that day I heroically confronted yon press-gang (glances at Sylvia) and  that luck was with me e’er after.

Lucinda Elliot: You wouldn’t exactly have had shore leave as an impressed man, in case you made off. After you were promoted to warrant officer for good behaviour, you volunteered to go on that raid with Sir Sidney Smith, were taken prisoner, and kept in a French prison for two years until one Monsieur Phillipeux helped you to escape. I don’t see how you’d have had much opportunity to be anything but faithful, given the circumstances, if one closely follows the dates given.
It is true that no sooner had you reached the UK – now promoted to Lieutenant by Smith in gratitude – than you took off to see the girl you had left behind you only to learn you had been deceived and Hepburn, witness to your impressment, had kept it secret

(Hepburn sinks his head in his hands) .

Lucinda Elliot (kindly): Well, there’s no need to go through that painful, climatic scene of the novel again…I’ve always wondered, Kinraid; whatever made you think that ‘your Admiral’ could get you a divorce for Sylvia? A few decades later, even King Georges IV failed to get a divorce.

Sylvia (goes from being a ‘pale, tragic figure’ to being ‘as red as any rose’): Yon fause sod was after my body. His face was ‘all crimson with passion’.

Kinraid (clearly mortified): ‘Tis only a man’s nature, and little enough shore leave to socialize with suchlike amenable wenches as Newcastle Bess, Ma’am, if you take my meaning, you having a post Freudian understanding denied to the women of our own age.


Lucinda Eliot: I fully appreciate the extent of your libido…Then, you married the heiress Clarinda Jackson not eight months after this dramatic meeting.

Kinraid (looks intolerably smug) Love at fist sight(glances at Sylvia); on her side, anyway.

Sylvia: You forgot me in no time, for all you said as you’d marry none but me.

Kinraid (aside) :  Well, yo’  has t’give t’lasses a bit o’ nonsense…

Hepburn (raises face from hands): Sylvie, I made thee my idol. If I had my life to live o’er, I’d worship my maker more, and thee less, and never come to sin such a sin against thee.

Lucinda Elliot: I daresay. Well,  the poor girl made an idol out of Charley Kinraid. I suppose that’s why she got punished so severely, given Elizabeth Gaskell’s Christian perspective. That and her refusal to forgive Hepburn for so long.  You know what I say in my review of the novel –

Hepburn: You were facetious on the topic, and it won’t do. You said, ‘Philip Hepburn worships Sylvia Robson, and finds dishonour; Sylvia Robson worships Charley Kinraid, and finds disillusionment; Charley Kinraid worships himself, and finds a wife who agrees with him and a career in the Royal Navy’.

Kinraid (waves finger admonishingly) Naughty, Ma’am.  You’ve been serving an honest sailor a scurvy turn in a-going about yon web, spreading lies about me most assiduous.

Lucinda Elliot: Well, I thought it was a good enough way of summing up a plot in a sentence. By the way, I’d like to take this opportunity to express my disgust with the whaling industry and the near extinction of the Greenland whale as a result (the others look uncomprehending).

Kinraid: She speaks more kindly of them savage fish than she does o’me. Typical o’ that sort of female, and no reasoning with them (begins to whistle ‘Wheel May the Keel Row’) Anyone care to watch me doing the hornpipe(begins to dance the hornpipe).

Sylvia:  He is in fine spirits; it takes a deal to ruin t’ life of a man, but ah! I was let down by men as I trusted, and had no help for it.

Lucinda Elliot: You must leave Bella with Hester Rose, and go for a sailor,  and have some adventures yourself. But – (seeing a spark in Kinraid’s eye) not on his ship.

Hepburn: Ignore such ungodly talk. Women was meant to stay at home and wait on us.

Kinraid (still doing hornpipe) :True enough,and it were a fair saucy thing to say out against me, but I don’t care a hang. Ma’am. You can’t pin anything on me, though you did a blog post and had my name down as number six in your ‘Most Annoying Heroes’. Fancy, putting my name down along o’ the likes of Heathcliff.

Lucinda Elliot (struck with an idea) He comes from Yorkshire! You could have one of your press gangs impress him. Now, that would be a fitting fate.

Kinraid (continuing to dance): I wouldn’t have the likes of him on my ship. Thieves and murderers yes, but not that fellow (glances at Sylvia) . Er –and I don’t have to do with them sneaking press gangs, anyhow. I’m the hero who won your love by resisting them, remember, my pretty?

Sylvia (tosses her head with a return of some of her old spirits) I don’t care if you do, Mr Clarinda Jackson. I see all t’gossip about you was right at the end of t’ day. No doubt it’s true about you jilting Anne Coulson and being troth plighted to Bessy Courney at the same time as me, too.

Kinraid (still dancing):  Yon Mistress Elliot has been filling your head with lies about me, and I won’t  admit to any of t’ calumny. Vulgar gossip, that’s what it is.   I’m boldly defiant, just like I was when I stood over them hatches to protect me crew from press-gang and shot down and near killed. Dost ta not remember how you worshipped me from yon heroic deed? (to  Lucinda Elliot) Have you got any rum, Ma’am? I’m getting main and thirsty.

Hepburn: Well, I was heroic too; I saved his life at the Battle of Acre, and then our daughter’s, too. And it wasn’t very nice being blown up in that explosion.

Lucinda Elliot: We must have some order (hears a knock at the door).
Who’s that?

[Press gang enter, waving clubs] Press gang leader:  We’re allowed to take women now,and we’ve come for these two. Mouthy couple of women, let ’em live up to all their talk of going to sea and learn their lesson. And that writer one’s a Jacobin. Ought to be made to serve King and country.

Hepburn: Oh, no, that’s not right, though that Mistress Elliot is fair unwomanly with that outspoken talk. Take me instead, though I’ve taken the King’s Shilling already.

Kinraid (stops dancing): Quick, down cyber hold and I’ll stand over yon cyber hatches and shoot ‘em down if they come near!

Dim witted looking press-gang member: Captain Kinraid, we’ll follow your orders, and only fire blanks at you.

Lucinda Elliot: Well, after this piece of madness, and if I haven’t been impressed into the French Revolutionary Wars through a time warp, my next post will be about the one I intended for this week, on how in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ the protagonist and antagonist came to swap places…Aagh1! (leaps out of cyber window, followed by press gang).

Another Sour (Though Hopefully Entertaining) Post : Those Seven Female Counterparts to Those Seven Most Annoying Heroes

Having posted about the seven ‘heroes’ I personally find most obnoxious in famous books by deceased authors, it only seems fair to list the seven female leads I thought most annoying, too. 220px-Waterhouse_a_mermaid

The problem here, as I said on that earlier post, was that I generally found these female leads provoking because the woman tended to lose most of her separate identity entirely once she got together with the hero, merging her personality with his and so losing ANY character traits of her own, obnoxious or otherwise. Either that, or she began and ended as a Mary Sue, like Richardson’s Pamela and Fanny Burney’s Evelina.

As an extreme example of a Mary Sue who submerges her identity into that of her man, there’s Lucie from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. I couldn’t dislike her because she doesn’t have any personality at all. She’s just Charles Darnay’s wife and mother to his child. I did however, find the vacuum that she represents dismal.

This being so, it’s difficult to remember all the separate examples of books where thr heroine does this; however, reverting to my previous Annoying Hero list, I try to remember their female counterparts. Were they masochists, Mary Sues, or what?

Number One Annoying Hero on my list was the Marquis Vidal in Georgette Heyer’s ‘Devil’s Cub’. Mary Challoner, I seem to remember (but I’m relying on the sad remains of a once good memory here) was quite witty, not at all vain, sensible, practical and resourceful. True, she did have to do daft things to fit in with the mechanisms of the plot, though, such as running off with the rebarbative Vidal to save her sister. Apart from her terrible taste in falling for a would-be rapist bully, she’s very likable. Far-fetched as Heyer’s escapism is, a woman with a lot going for her throwing herself away on an abusive man is true to life, I’m sorry to say…

Number Two of the Annoying Hero’s was Theseus in Mary Renault’s books ‘The King Must Die’ and ‘The Bull from the Sea’. I said then what I thought of the Apostate Amazon heroine of ‘The Bull from the Sea’, Hippoylata, and her extended case of Stockholm Syndrome once she becomes Theseus’ captive and joins him in spreading his patriarchal rule.

The book is, like the first, told from Theseus’ point of view and he sees her as being above criticism. The author who only reveals a character through the eyes of a besotted admirer runs the risk of making that character unsympathetic through such a biased viewpoint.  I suppose it could be done with irony, that wasn’t my impression here. If this story of her betrayal of the Goddess had been told by Hippoylata herself, perhaps she would have come across as more likable, despising herself, perhaps, for her passion for this enemy of female power, but as it is, I found her highly unsympathetic.

Number Three was Heathcliff, whom I’m sure everyone knows from ‘Wuthering Heights’ and whom I’m equally sure Emily Bronte didn’t intend as a hero at all, Byronic or otherwise. I didn’t find Cathy wonderfully sympathetic, but she  clearly was the only woman about seemingly savage and sadistic enough to stand up to Heathcliff’s bullying ways. Sadly, having failed to move either of the two men she wants to accept each other, she sinks into a decline altogether feminine. She is decidedly selfish, but given her dismal background, with her mother dying very early and her father turning against her for her high spirits, plus her brother Hindley’s wild antics, it’s not surprising that she isn’t exactly gentle. She did seem to feel for Heathcliff when Hindley forced him to be a servant.

I was interested in an article I saw mentioned, written by Patsy Stoneman, about Cathy’s wanting to have a ‘non possessive’ relationship of the sort for which Shelley yearned (and which, to be fair to those who advocate a set-up seemingly doomed to failure, probably can’t be properly envisaged or enacted within the narrow confines of our current society, anyway). A friend of mine on Goodreads was trying to trace this article, but hasn’t got back to me, but it does throw an intriguing new light on Cathy and her apparent selfishness in wanting two men at once. To be fair to her, too, she doesn’t show any jealousy when she thinks Heathcliff might desire Isabella, though we might think she is much too blasé about such a savage man when she says words to the effect  of; – ‘If you like her you shall have her – but I’m sure you don’t!”

She comes across as generally insensitive and overbearing, as when she taunts Isabella about her foolish infatuation for Heathcliff, and when she jeers about Edgar’s jealousy over her praise of the returned Heathcliff (she says she isn’t jealous of Edgar’s praise of Isabella’s beauty; but then, that can hardly be intended to be sexual, though in the quasi-incestuous atmosphere that surrounds the story, who knows?). On the whole, if anyone can be said to deserve the fate of being (temporarily) stuck with Heathcliff, she does for valuing the opinion of a man capable of doing such disgusting things. Of course, she’s extremely young; perhaps if she’d lived to maturity, she’d have outlived her strange  passion for him.

Number Four Annoying Hero for me was James Bond, so the heroines (if they can be called that; they aren’t allowed to take much initiative) are legion, with him being a compulsive Don Juan. Most of them have slipped my memory. As Mari Biella commented on the post, these women were largely lay figures created to be part of Bond’s male fantasy world of effortless conquest and hardly even meant to be anything other than desirable, worshiping conquests.

There was one called Honeychile Ryder in Dr No, whom I quite liked before she surrendered to Bond, an athletic woman who lived alone supporting herself by fishing. As a young girl, she’d been beaten unconscious, raped and her nose broken by a man whom she later killed by putting a scorpion in his bed. I don’t much like saying a kind word about Bond, but I seem to remember he thought her revenge fair enough. There was a Countess known – of all names – as ‘Tracy’ who had emotional problems. Bond was in the process of sorting ‘em out after marrying her, but she was murdered. I seem to remember she threw an alarm clock at him once, which I thought a waste of a useful object. I don’t remember much about her personality. There was one called Tatiana Romonova from the USSR who didn’t seem to have any personality at all even before she met him, and then there was one called Pussy Galore who was a lesbian. I do remember Bond’s explanation for lesbianism – he put it down to women wearing trousers too often. Presumably if he’d worn a kilt, then the problems of the heroines’ foolish worship would be at an end, and he’d have gone over to men…

Annoying Hero Number Five for me was Charley Kinraid from Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’. I didn’t blame the heroine Sylvia for despising the cousin who tricks her into marriage with him, and I sympathized with her love of being outside and working with animals and her love of the sea and her longing for adventure, so apart for her foolish worship of Kinraid, I found her generally sympathetic. As I said in an article I wrote about the novel for the ‘F word’, if Sylvia had been able to go to sea and have adventures herself, her tragedy would never have happened. As one critic, I think Jane Spenser, comments, it is only through her own lack of opportunities for adventure in her dull role as a woman and home-maker that she becomes so wildly infatuated with the superficial Kinraid (who could have adventures). This also encourages her to feel helpless after her father’s hanging and her mother’s insanity, so that she weakens and accepts Hepburn.

Number Six was Heriot Fayne from Charles Garvice’s ‘The Outcast of the Family Or a Battle Between Love and Pride’. The heroine, Eva, is a perfect example of a Mary Sue, admired by all. The author instructs the reader to ‘fall in love with her at once’ insisting that she is witty and independent minded. Sadly we never see any signs of either quality, as she spends most of the novel fainting, shedding tears over Lord Heriot Fayne for his ‘wasted life’ and sacrificing herself for her father or shrinking from the repulsive touch of the duplicitous Stannard Marshbank.

My Number Seven was the secondary hero from Georgette Heyer’s ‘’The Talisman Ring’ Ludovic Lavenham. He’s remarkably stupid and lacking in common sense. The secondary heroine, Eustacie, is similarly afflicted and undiscerning enough to think him wonderful, and on the whole I found her almost as tiresome as I did him.

So, there’s my list of the Annoying Heroes’ counterparts, and with a couple of honourable exceptions – Sylvia and possibly Cathy, they do seem to surrender their identities readily when they meet the dominant male.

I did actually forget someone who I should have put on my original list, ‘Mr B’ from Pamela. This fellow manages to be a rake and would-be rapist (I don’t believe his insistence that it was all a misunderstanding in Pamela In Her Exulted Condition; I think those to be  retrospective excuses by Richardson) yet later lectures sanctimoniously about proper conduct in  marriage and a wife’s duties. He gives a long ‘What He Expects’ lecture to Pamela: she must always look attractive, she must rise at five every day, she must entertain all his guests graciously etc, etc. This, presumably, was the bourgois coming out in Richardson incongruously through the voice of his supposed rake, but the sanctimonious tone is highly provoking, given his own history.

Pamela herself is also conceded to be annoying as the original Mary Sue, not just by me, but by many critics, and for an author to have made so many people dislike a servant girl imprisoned by a lascivious master is quite an achievement – but he succeeds. To be fair to Richardson, novel writing being in its infancy, and Pamela being largely told through her own letters, her apparent vanity in solemnly recounting one compliment after another is probably just clumsiness on the author’s part, but the effect, as in the later Evelina, isn’t attractive.

In fact, I can think of one ‘heroine’ – more of an anti-heroine – who does have a very independent character, and whom I didn’t like much anyway, and that’s Thackeray’s Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair. She is certainly tough, resourceful, dismissive of conventional morality and incapable of forgetting her own self-interest in her relations with men – but then, perhaps that’s not so surprising; Vanity Fair being a ‘novel without a hero.’ Still, I hardly think she’d do anything but exploit Vidal, Theseus, James Bond, Charley Kinraid, Lord Fayne or Ludovic Lavenham anyway – and Heathcliff she would not consider worth noticing, having no wish to live in a draughty farmhouse on the moors.

I can hardly blame her for exploiting the weaknesses of people  of higher rank, with no talent, but the money and power denied to her by birth, yet I don’t agree with critics like Seymour Betsky that ‘part of Becky’s superiority to others lies in the absence of ill-humor, meaness, or savage intensity in her self-interest.’ In her encouraging Rawden Crawley to get the foolish George Osborne to gamble away the few thousand pounds left to him after his father has disinherited him for marrying Amelia, she shows all of these qualities. She has a grudge against him because he prevented her marriage to Amelia’s brother Jos as he didn’t want a low born sister-in-law. You might think as that leads to her getting a baronet’s son for a husband, she might be almost grateful to him, but she does indeed show a good deal of savage vengefulness here. If she ruins George by seducing him to play with the cheating Rawden Crawley, she ruins his wife too, and Amelia has been up to that point her only staunch friend, but Becky doesn’t seem to worry about that. Instead she lures George to the gaming table by making him infatuated with her and so ruining the few weeks that he and Amelia have together before he’s killed at Waterloo.

Years later, she shows Amelia the letter George has written to her asking her to elope with him – presumably, she’s unaware that just before the Battle of Waterloo he repents of this and says he hopes if he’s killed Amelia never hears of it, but probablyn she wouldn’t care if she did know that  – and her having kept this note for years, which can hardly do her any good with George dead, seems to indicate a startlingly vindictive streak.

Fate pays Rawden Crawley back for his part in this piece of shabbiness, when he’s in turn betrayed and humiliated by Becky when she tries to get him out of the way so she can have a shockingly private meeting with the Marquis of Steyne. Steyne is  a man so physically repulsive, with his white face, yellow teeth and dyed red hair,  that Becky surely deserves an award for being able to endure physical intimacy with him. Well, this being a Victorian novel, we are never quite sure that she is physically intimate with him – but his words, ‘Every jewel on her body has been paid for by me’ might, if inverted, give the answer.

So, I found Becky Sharp equally, if not more, unsympathetic than some of those Identity Shedding heroines. Amelia Sedley, interestingly, I didn’t dislike, though she is very much a Victorian heroine, and portrayed as such by the author. I didn’t feel impatient with her as I did most of the others, perhaps because the poor girl’s infatuation with George Osborn turns out so dismally for her.

With the exception of Sylvia, Cathy  and Countess Tracy, all the other heroines, even the idiotic Eustacie in Heyer’s ‘The Talisman Ring’, are saved from the consequences their stupid actions by plot devices (and those heroes) but poor Amelia Sedley is made to suffer years of attrition. But then these are a mixed selection of books, with more serious works jostling with light romances, and in Thackeray only the unscrupulous generally thrive in Vanity Fair. We leave Becky flourishing.

Moral Complexities and Good and Bad Characters

12618f13Suzie and the Monsters - a fairytale of blood, sex and inhumanity...Robert_Lovelace_Preparing_to_Abduct_Clarissa_HarloweFrancis Franklin’s intriguing and disturbing book ‘’Suzy and the Monsters’, which is about a predatory bi sexuaol vampire who routinely abuses women as well as men , and her war on a far worse group of abusers, human traffickers, examines the moral complexities in this vendetta where Suzy displays ‘the rage of Artemis’. No punches are pulled in describing Suzy’s own awareness of her particular capacity for cruelty, or that of her hateful opponents.

This contrasted strikingly with the book I was previously reading where the moral boundaries between good and bad people are generally clearly if simplistically, drawn and where notions of good and evil, abuse and abuser are clear-cut – that is in Samuel Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’.

As I don’ t  myself share Richardson’s orthodox religious views, with hellfire and damnation awaiting the wicked and eternal bliss for the virtuous, or  his system of morality, it might be seem surprising that I agree with his definition of Lovelace as a man given to indulging remorselessly his taste for wickedness. However, I do, because he is a rapist., and not only that, but a serial abuser of women who thinks that their moral worth can be equated with their so-called physical virtue.

Richardson, it seems, took the view that if the repentant Belford and the incorrigibly scheming and immoral Lovelace had not been ostensibly believers, then their correspondence would have been ‘truly demonic’.

I’m far from believing this myself – it seems to me that Lovelace’s hypocritical refusal to listen to blasphemy, whist showing no mercy to so many of his fellow creatures, makes him seem far worse. He also comes across as a fool, for if he believes in damnation but works diligently for his admission to hell, he seems to me almost to suffer from some mental condition in which the sufferer can’t relate cause and effect.

Another writer whose attitude towards moral conflict is within the straightforward one of Christian morality is Elizabeth Gaskell. As such, one would rather expect her moral scheme to include a scenario where the wicked flourish in this world and the good and morally scrupulous lose out, looking forward to a reward in the next.

Sometimes in her stories, as in various short stories, for instance, ‘The Sexton’s Hero’ and ‘Half a Lifetime Ago’ this is clearly her thinking on this point, but in some of her novels she seems to be distracted by the conventional novelists’ need for a happy ending in this world, regardless of theology; for instance, in ‘North and South’ the happy reconciliation of the hero and heroine seems contrived to say the least, and comes about through a whole series of people conveniently dying or changing their accustomed patterns of behaviour.

In ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ as I have often said before in this blog, the author gets into difficulties of another sort, caused through her softness towards a morally questionable main character. She ends up by having two out of three very faulty characters suffer a dismal fate in this world, while the third seems to have an improbably charmed life.

The dishonest Philip Hepburn, who conceals from his idol Sylvia Robson that he knows that her preferred admirer Charley Kinraid has been taken by a press gang rather than having been drowned, suffers a miserable fate (and it is hard not to believe, deservedly). Rejected by Sylvia in front of the returned Kinraid, he goes to expiate his sins by enlisting as a marine. Horribly disfigured in an explosion, he comes home a beggar and finally dies dramatically in the arms of a repentant Sylvia, whose punishment as surely follows; tormented by guilt at her godless rejection of the man she married, she drags on a few more years before dying early herself.

Meanwhile, the thoughtless womanizer Charley Kinrad (who is blamed by Hepburn’s business partner William Coulson for causing the death through a broken heart of Coulson’s sister Annie, whom he once courted for a couple of years, and who has beguiled his cousin Bessy into believing that she is engaged to him at the same time that he is courting Sylvia) makes a brilliant match with a pretty heiress only months after he finds out that he has come back to find Sylvia married. As he does this after having solemnly sworn that he’ll have Sylvia for his wife or nobody, she is understandably peeved.

Not only that, but he has a glowing career in the Royal Navy open to him.
In the gun battle on his whaler through which he becomes Sylvia’s hero, he has shot dead two press-gang members, and it is only through being shot down and mistaken for dead himself that he escapes what would have been his punishment had it been known he had survived – hanging for mutiny.

This opposition to press gangs doesn’t prevent him from going in for heroics – this time on the Royal Navy’s side – when he is later captured by a press-gang. This is turn leads to his promotion to officer rank, and after some more heroics being promoted again to Captain.

As an officer, this shameless opportunist would be expected to use press gangs routinely to get enough men (never mind the regulations governing impressments) but we don’t hear about this sordid side to his glittering career as a Naval hero and we may assume that he and the woman who has replaced the unlucky Sylvia in his gadfly affections go on from strength to strength. Kinraid, who has survived yet another shooting through a fortuitous rescue at the hands of his old enemy Hepburn, doesn’t even have so much as limp following a broken leg as we leave him in Portsmouth, walking along vigorously with his adoring wife clinging to his arm.

As I have also said elsewhere, I think this strange contrast between the dismal fates of two of the three main characters in this novel, and the improbable luck of the third, is very likely due to Elizabeth Gaskell’s identifying all her sailor characters with her beloved lost brother John . The theme of the Returning Sailor is one of the landmarks of her work, and while she probably planned a less glowing fate for the caddish Charley Kinraid, sisterly affection must have taken over from authorial detachment.

Of course, I may be wrong. Elizabeth Gaskell was as frequently as subtle a writer as she could be one given to melodrama and even sentimentality, and it is possible that Kinraid’s good luck (the whaler on which we first encounter him is called the ‘Good Fortune’) is intended as a lesson on how the emotionally superficial and unscrupulous flourish in this world. One of the reasons this novel is one that I find particularly intriguing is because the moral lessons are far from as clear-cut as perhaps Elizabeth Gaskell intended them to be. Some people, for instance, read this and assume that Kinraid is meant to be regarded uncritically as a hero – but given the author was he devout wife of a minister I find this hard to believe.

This unintentional ambiguity in the moral message of this novel, where two characters are punished for their wrong doings in this world and another comes up smelling of roses,  makes me less amazed at the absurd amount of time that Richardson devoted to writing appendices and footnotes to his works – and to ‘Clarissa’ in particular – explaining to his readers exactly what moral point he wished to make, exactly how he was trying to portray a character.

But from Richardson’s day to ours, unfortunately, there are those who continue to admire Lovelace and despise Clarissa. Whatever our spiritual beliefs, whatever point, moral or otherwise, we may wish to make in telling our story and portraying our characters in a certain way, once we publish the reader is free to make up her own mind.