Saturday, March 24, 2018

Hardly worth getting out of bed

But even though tomorrow's a whole hour shorter than the average day, I'm going to do some more extensive old-school pen-and-paper memory training. I'll be on something approaching half-decent form by the time I get to Canada, hopefully!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Wilkie Collins's missing person

Here's a fun trivia question for anyone who's as big a fan as me of the works of Wilkie Collins - he was strangely fond of giving supporting characters in his novels a title of distinction coupled with an unusual surname starting with "Ben". Scattered among his books you can find Father Ben----, Doctor Ben----- and Captain Ben------. Anyone who can fill in the blanks and name the books deserves a special prize, which I'll provide once I've looted it from a revered Indian idol. I'll provide the answer below, after a brief spoiler-space filled with ramblings about 1860s English literature, so if any genuine Collins-lovers happen by this blog, look away now, until you've remembered the answer.

When it comes to Victorian fiction, I think I'm what the people back then would call "modern" in my tastes - I can do without Charles Dickens, in fact, but if I'm ever exiled to the Desert Island Discs island, I'd have to take some kind of mega-compilation of the entire works of Wilkie Collins and Mrs Henry Wood. The two of them comprise everything you really need to read if you want the best writing of that particular era. I don't know if either of them would have wanted to be grouped together like that - Mrs Wood especially, who in her late-1860s editorial reviews in the Argosy magazine was repeatedly rude about Collins and the "sensation" writers he inspired. She certainly didn't consider herself to be one of that breed, and is probably turning in her grave at the way most modern commentators (if they mention her at all) lump her in with those types. And of course, those reviews couldn't have been anything to do with the way her own brief star was in decline at that point, while his was shining ever brighter and brighter. Anyway, one thing I'm going to do one day, maybe, eventually, is a fully detailed analysis and commentary blog dedicated to the Johnny Ludlow stories. Look forward to it, if I ever have the time and energy to write it!

But to return to Wilkie and his Bens, the answers are the scheming Jesuit Father Benwell in "The Black Robe", the horrible (but strangely likeable) vivisectionist Doctor Benjulia in "Heart and Science" and the entirely nice and benevolent Captain Bennydeck in "The Evil Genius", who comes back at the end of the book and marries the wayward girl.

In that respect, Captain Bennydeck is another of Collins's recurring themes. He shares more than just a rank with the unfortunately-named Captain Kirke in "No Name"; they both also share the extremely common plot function of the good man who is absent from the main action of the story (for virtuous, self-denying, heroic reasons, of course), only to return at the climax and sweep the heroine off her feet. Bennydeck, in fact, is at least a presence throughout the book even when he's not around; Kirke makes just a brief token appearance early on, before popping up at the end and providing the happy ending. The whole trend started with Walter Hartright in "The Woman in White", but Collins revisited it over and over again in later years.

The one I find particularly strange, is the good man who doesn't return! There's something a bit strange about the novel "Man and Wife", and I don't mean Wilkie Collins's obsession with marriage laws or the evils of sports (a subplot in the book repeatedly asserts that anyone who participates in athletic events will inevitably die young of complete physical breakdown and also become an evil, immoral villain), it's the disappearance of Mr Kendrew.

To summarise the story briefly, it starts with a prologue - two women, Blanche and Anne, swore eternal friendship as children despite the difference in their social class. Blanche married the baronet Sir Thomas Lundie and had a daughter also called Blanche; Anne married the horrible cad Mr Vanborough and had a daughter also called Anne. The prologue describes an eventful evening's conversation between Vanborough, his friend Mr Kendrew and a lawyer, Mr Delamayn. Delamayn confirms that due to a legal loophole, the Vanboroughs' marriage is invalid. This pleases Vanborough, who wants to forge a parliamentary career for himself and wants a wife with better connections, who'll help him attain his eventual goal of a peerage. He heartlessly discards Anne and their daughter without any compunction, much to the horror of Kendrew, who ends their friendship immediately. How Kendrew, a decent, moral, principled man, became friends with Vanborough in the first place is unnarrated, and just has to go down as one of life's mysteries.

The second part of the prologue then briefly summarises what happens to everyone over the next twelve years. Anne dies, naturally - a broken heart was always a fatal condition in Victorian novels. Blanche (Lady Lundie) takes young Anne into her household as young Blanche's governess and companion. Lady Lundie later dies, leaving Sir Thomas to remarry before dying himself and thus giving the rest of the novel a comic-relief supporting character in the second Lady Lundie. Vanborough marries Lady Jane and enters parliament, but doesn't prosper simply because nobody likes him. Delamayn also enters parliament, prospers wonderfully and eventually is made Lord Holchester. Vanborough eventually commits suicide.

And as for Mr Kendrew, the prologue goes into detail about him too.

"How the husband’s friend marked his sense of the husband’s treachery has been told already. How he felt the death of the deserted wife is still left to tell. Report, which sees the inmost hearts of men, and delights in turning them outward to the public view, had always declared that Mr. Kendrew’s life had its secret, and that the secret was a hopeless passion for the beautiful woman who had married his friend. Not a hint ever dropped to any living soul, not a word ever spoken to the woman herself, could be produced in proof of the assertion while the woman lived. When she died Report started up again more confidently than ever, and appealed to the man’s own conduct as proof against the man himself.
He attended the funeral—though he was no relation. He took a few blades of grass from the turf with which they covered her grave—when he thought that nobody was looking at him. He disappeared from his club. He travelled. He came back. He admitted that he was weary of England. He applied for, and obtained, an appointment in one of the colonies. To what conclusion did all this point? Was it not plain that his usual course of life had lost its attraction for him, when the object of his infatuation had ceased to exist? It might have been so—guesses less likely have been made at the truth, and have hit the mark. It is, at any rate, certain that he left England, never to return again. Another man lost, Report said. Add to that, a man in ten thousand—and, for once, Report might claim to be right."

And then we go into the real action of the book. It can be summarised pretty quickly - Geoffrey Delamayn, second son of Lord Holchester, grows up to be a celebrated sportsman and unspeakable cad. He gets young Anne, virtuous governess who just has that one little moral lapse, "in a scrape". She insists that he marry her; he doesn't want to; she threatens to kill herself; he grudgingly agrees to a private marriage. She goes to take a room in an inn nearby, presenting herself as a married woman in order to get a room. Geoffrey is supposed to join her there and make an honest woman of her, but is suddenly called away by news that his father is ill. He sends his friend Arnold (also young Blanche's fiance) to the inn to explain things. A storm forces him to spend the night there, claiming to be Anne's husband. When Geoffrey finds out that this maybe, possibly, means that Arnold and Anne have got married under Scottish law, he's delighted and uses this as a good excuse to abandon her.

The main characters - Geoffrey, Anne, Blanche, Arnold and Blanche's uncle Sir Patrick Lundie - then fill the required length of a Victorian three-volume novel by running around at cross-purposes for ages and ages, always telling each other everything except the one important piece of information they need to know in order to take a sensible course of action and resolve everything. The novel then redeems itself at the end with an absolutely wonderful climax, real edge-of-your-seat stuff of the type that only Wilkie Collins could produce, following which the good end happily and the bad unhappily, and Sir Patrick marries Anne. Old men marrying young women was a good thing in those days, except in the works of radical moaners like George Eliot.

But where's Mr Kendrew? Surely the prologue is setting things up for him to be the one who comes back to marry poor Anne in the end? He's never mentioned again after that prologue, and instead Sir Patrick (who isn't mentioned at all in the prologue) fills that role. I think Wilkie Collins just made a mess of the prologue somehow, assigning the wrong roles to the wrong men - in the main story, Sir Patrick's legal knowledge and background is an essential part of the plot, while Lord Holchester (the former Mr Delamayn) shows no traces of ever having been a lawyer, being just a grumpy old peer with a scoundrel for a son. I'm convinced that he intended the lawyer of the prologue to go on to be the lawyer of the story, only to realise after the prologue had been published (the novel was serialised in Cassell's Magazine) that he'd somehow turned the lawyer into Geoffrey's father and the layman into the potential future husband of Anne. What an unfortunate cock-up, but never mind. Take another draught of opium, Wilkie, and invent someone new. Sir Patrick.

I know this isn't the kind of writing Wilkie Collins is famous for (indeed, he was widely derided by his fellow authors of the late 19th century for actually knowing how his novels were going to end before he started to write them!), but he was still a Victorian writer, and he wasn't above making it up as he went along if he had to. "Armadale", as John Sutherland explains at length in one of his wonderful essays, was obviously written on the fly without the extensive planning that Collins preferred. "Jezebel's Daughter" is even more glaring - he tries to write it as the personal witness testimony of the narrator, but after half a novel of David being present at every important event and conversation, seeing and hearing everything on both sides of the villain's schemes but telling nobody what he's witnessed, Wilkie seems to realise how stupid the whole thing is and packs David off back to London, saying that the rest of the novel he knows from reading people's diaries in later years. It's not very good, that one - we could even leave it out of my Collins/Wood compilation if we wanted to save a bit of paper. "Man and Wife", though, I recommend to everyone - if you haven't read it, do check it out and see if you agree with me about the strange case of Mr Kendrew...