Showing posts with label Wilkie Collins. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wilkie Collins. Show all posts

31 December 2015

Ghoulies and Ghosties

by Eve Fisher

On this Seventh Day of Christmas (seven swans a-swimming...), I'd like to discuss a Victorian tradition:  Ghost Stories for the holidays.
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
  - Traditional Scots prayer
ghost photo woman scared by apparition
1860s : Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Or, it says in Andy Williams’ classic Christmas song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” "There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”

In Victorian England, Christmas Eve (and pretty much the whole Twelve Days of Christmas) was the traditional time to tell ghost stories.  People would rake up the fire, sit there with their mulled wine and roasting chestnuts, and scare the bejeezus out of each other.  M. R. James, the provost of Kings College, Cambridge, had a tradition of inviting students and friends to his rooms on Christmas Eve where he'd read them a ghost story he'd written. Charles Dickens published ghost stories every year at Christmas in his periodical, All the Year Round, as did other contributors like Wilkie Collins.  And, of course, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, in which four ghosts are prominent characters (you have to include Jacob Marley!), and the Ghost of Christmas Future was supposed to give you nightmares.

But if you really want nightmares, read Dickens' The Chimes.  Toby Veck, a poor ticket-porter, and his daughter, Meg - about to be married to Richard, a young laborer - are confronted by Alderman Wick.
Alderman Wick and company
‘You are going to be married, you say,’ pursued the Alderman.  ‘Very unbecoming and indelicate in one of your sex!  But never mind that.  After you are married, you’ll quarrel with your husband and come to be a distressed wife.  You may think not; but you will, because I tell you so.  Now, I give you fair warning, that I have made up my mind to Put distressed wives Down.  So, don’t be brought before me.  You’ll have children—boys.  Those boys will grow up bad, of course, and run wild in the streets, without shoes and stockings.  Mind, my young friend!  I’ll convict ’em summarily, every one, for I am determined to Put boys without shoes and stockings, Down.  Perhaps your husband will die young (most likely) and leave you with a baby.  Then you’ll be turned out of doors, and wander up and down the streets.  Now, don’t wander near me, my dear, for I am resolved, to Put all wandering mothers Down.  All young mothers, of all sorts and kinds, it’s my determination to Put Down.  Don’t think to plead illness as an excuse with me; or babies as an excuse with me; for all sick persons and young children (I hope you know the church-service, but I’m afraid not) I am determined to Put Down.  And if you attempt, desperately, and ungratefully, and impiously, and fraudulently attempt, to drown yourself, or hang yourself, I’ll have no pity for you, for I have made up my mind to Put all suicide Down!  If there is one thing,’ said the Alderman, with his self-satisfied smile, ‘on which I can be said to have made up my mind more than on another, it is to Put suicide Down.  So don’t try it on.  That’s the phrase, isn’t it?  Ha, ha! now we understand each other.’
And things only get worse from there.  Poor Meg!  Poor Toby!  And when Toby, looking for solace on a cold New Year's Eve, goes up to the church to hear the bells, and falls to his death, his ghost is shown a future complete with his darling Meg now abandoned, starving, with a newborn, no hope or mercy anywhere on earth, and racing for the river...  Let's just say that The Chimes is so bleak that it makes Cormac McCarthy look like a comedian.  Yes, Dickens does supply the mandatory happy ending, but until then...  it's a treatise on the ultimate result of Victorian economic theory (primarily Utilitarianism and Malthusianism), and a legal system designed to eliminate the poor the hard way. This fun read for the holidays is available for free here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/653/653-h/653-h.htm

But not all ghost stories were so obviously political or polemical.  Most were just designed to scare people.  The above mentioned M. R. James was very good at this. He said that every ghost story must "put the reader into the position of saying to himself, 'If I'm not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!'"  Allow me to recommend "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come To You, My Lad" (http://www.thin-ghost.org/items/show/150).   "Rats" isn't bad, either.

FS Coburn. Photograph: British Library/Robana via Getty

And The Paris Review has a great blog post listing five forgotten Christmas Ghost Stories (check it out here http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/12/19/ghosts-on-the-nog/).

Why did the Victorians love ghost stories at Christmas? Well, it was dark and cold and beside a good fire was the place to be.  The nights are extremely long, and all the old, pre-Christian traditions knew that the veil between here and there was very thin around the winter's solstice.  And Christmas Eve - with Christmas Day coming almost immediately - was a time when ghosts could walk the earth and finish their unsettled business, relatively safely (for humans at least).

There was also, among the wealthy, the little issue of gas lighting, still in its infancy, which emitted carbon monoxide, which had a tendency to make people see things.  And, sticking with the wealthy, let's not forget that, in a Victorian world where almost everyone had servants, and yet those servants were expected to be almost invisible, leading to houses with separate entrances, staircases, even hallways for servants, people would be unexpectedly popping in and out of dark places on a regular basis.  Were they always people?

And the poor, huddled around their fire and their candlelight, both sending shadows and ripples of shadows, flickering in the never-ending drafts (there's a reason people - even skinflint Ebenezer - had bedcurtains), squeaky windows, rattling latches, shuddering shutters, and corners dark as the devil's foot...

Besides, people just like to be scared.

Speaking of which (and part of what sparked this blog), I recently read a ghost story by Dylan Thomas called The Followers.  I can't find a free e-text, but go check out Dylan Thomas' Complete Short Stories, and enjoy a story that starts out perfectly normal, nothing strange going on, as two young lads try to find something to do on a dull, boring, wet night in a city...  I can assure you, it adheres to Mr. James basic rule:  'If I'm not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!'

But it's still not as scary as "The Monkey's Paw":  Keep the lights on.

Happy New Year!

11 October 2012

You Say Sensation, I Say Mystery...

by Eve Fisher

It was a dark and stormy night, and I've got to have something to read.  I'm sorry, but tonight, as the wind howls and the hail spatters against the window, I don't want anything new.  I don't want anything slick.  I don't want anything modern.  I want something familiar and satisfying.  Who do I fall back on? The Victorians:  Never underestimate the punch of a Victorian writer.  They pretty much began the mystery genre, under the much-maligned term "Sensation Novel", and don't get enough credit. If you have never read any of them, allow me to recommend three of the most famous and accessible:

File:Wilkie-Collins.jpgWilkie Collins' The Woman in White.  Here two young women's identities are stripped from them as one is declared dead, one is dead, and one is sent to a madhouse for life.  What happened?  Who died?  Who lived?  How can the truth be proven?  Besides an endlessly twisting and turning plot, there are amazing characters:  a magnificent heroine in Marion Halcombe, the ultimate Victorian cold-hearted bitch in Mrs. Catherick, and the worst guardian known to man, Frederick Fairlie, who really should have been shot at birth.  And then there's Count Fosco, one of my favorite villains in all of history, with a face like Napoleon's and the heft of Nero Wolfe.  Watch him as he plays with his little pet white mice and, at the same time, his irascible "friend" Sir Percival Glyde.  Meet his completely subservient wife, who spends her days rolling his cigarettes, watching his face, and doing his bidding.  He loves sugar water and pastry and plotting, and he never, ever loses his temper or raises his voice.  His only weakness?  A passionate admiration for Marion.  But can that actually stop him?  Don't count on it. 
(NOTE:  Collins' wrote many other novels, including The Moonstone, which I don't care for, actually, and Armadale, which is even MORE full of plot twists and turns than The Woman in White.  And Lydia Gwilt should scare the crap out of anyone...) 

In Mrs. Henry Wood's East Lynne, the ostensible main plot - and a true Victorian corker it is! - revolves around Isabel Vane, an Earl's daughter who, unbelievably, is reduced to poverty and marries an attorney (SO much beneath her in birth), Archibald Carlisle.  Mr. Carlisle is such a miracle of common sense, rectitude, honor, and beauty, that I have to admit after a while I get tired of hearing how wonderful he is.  It almost makes you cheer when she is eventually unfaithful to him with a former suitor, who gets her to run off with him, impregnates her, and abandons her (the "Lady!  Wife!  Mother!" scene is worth the read in and of itself).  Lost - in every sense of the word - and alone, Lady Isabel is believed killed in a railroad accident.  However, she is only disfigured beyond recognition (isn't that always the way?), and comes back to be the governess in her old home, to her own children, and to the children of her husband and his new wife, Barbara Hare. 
That in itself would keep almost any soap opera running for YEARS.  But what really fuels this sensation novel is the second plot, about the murder of a local gamekeeper, whose daughter, Aphrodite Hallijohn, was "involved" with multiple suitors, among them the clerk of courts (I can believe that one), a mysterious Captain, and Richard , the brother of the second Mrs. Carlisle.  Richard and Barbara are the children of the local Judge, and Judge Hare does his best throughout the novel to find, convict and hang his own son.  Barbara's whole goal in life (other than being the perfect wife to Mr. Carlisle) is to clear Richard's name.  Each and every character is involved in the solution to this murder, and the shifting identities of various people - at least three people live in disguise for major parts of the novel - are obstacles, keys, and clues to what really happened in that hut.  
(NOTE:  Mrs. Henry Wood wrote over thirty other novels, and among the best of the rest (imho) is The Channings.)  

Mrs. Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret curled many a person's hair back in the day, especially once it was revealed that what they thought was the secret - a secret that should be solved by anyone of moderate intelligence early on - is not The Secret at all.  Let's just say that Lady Audley is a work of art, and perhaps the source material for all suicide blondes.  Once again, a spicy Victorian stew of bigamy, mysterious deaths, hidden identities, even more mysterious (and convenient) arson, betrayal, adultery, heartache, and suspense, all served up at (for a Victorian novel) a fairly rapid clip. 
(NOTE:  Mrs. Braddon was another prolific author; second best novel is probably Aurora Floyd.)


Sensation Novels are often given a bad rap, but they were very well written, intricately plotted, and take you into the Victorian world in a way that few other books do.  Let's also not forget that, in their day, the Sherlock Holmes books would have been considered Sensation Novels - I mean, come on:  Polygamy!  Murder!  Hidden identities!  Revenge!  Giant devil hounds!  Granted, Sherlock Holmes transcended the genre - every genre - but he started in sensation.  And I'd love to debate someone about why Dickens is literature and Sensation Novels are not. 

By the way, Sensation Novels are also proof, once again, that reality must be watered down to be acceptable fiction.  The Victorian authors were an interesting bunch.  Wilkie Collins was an opium addict who had at least two concurrent families, and married the mother of neither of them.  Mrs. Henry Wood was married to an unemployed alcoholic, and her writing supported the family.  And Mrs. Braddon was involved for years in an adulterous relationship with her editor.  And when Jane Eyre came out, it was widely assumed that Mr. Rochester was based on William Makepeace Thackeray, whose wife was in an insane asylum, and who was believed to be having a long-running affair with his governess...   

All of these books, and many more, are available either new, used, or on Kindle. Please, check them out.  Those dark and stormy nights are coming back...  Next time, more Victorian murder mysteries!

13 October 2011

A Very Big Victorian Novel

by Janice Law

A recent New Yorker article about the Victorian writer Wilkie Collins put me onto one of his less famous novels, Armadale. Like other mystery fans, I knew The Moonstone and The Woman in White, though the latter only through a television series.

Armadale was uncharted territory and a visit to the local university's library revealed it to be a 1000 plus page monster in two volumes. A hearty read, indeed.

Originally published serially in 1864, this epic about two distant young cousins who share the same name, displays all the writer's virtues: brilliant plotting, lively characters, and a knack for raising socially disturbing topics within a popular thriller format. It also displays Collins complex attitudes toward women.

Sympathetic to the position of women in Victorian society as he revealed in The Woman in White, he nonetheless retails various stereotypes of feminine frivolity and irrationality, while creating Lydia Gwilt, a woman of great intellectual power and charisma, not to mention her complex, sometimes friend Mrs. Oldershaw. Gwilt's diary and letters are among the highlights of the novel, and her correspondence with the appalling Oldershaw advances the plot is sprightly ways.

Also interesting is his treatment of the colonial world. Many of the great British fortunes, and great British cities, rested on the profits of the merchant adventurers and officials of the British Raj and on the slave trade and the brutal plantation economy of the West Indies. In general, the suffering that underpinned the grand houses and splendid town squares was kept off stage. In Mansfield Park, a character goes west to repair his fortunes, and the most famous madwoman of the period, Mrs. Rochester, comes from the islands.

But Collins makes a closer connection. The father of the dark Allan Armadale, who you will be happy to know spends most of what would otherwise have been a supremely confusing novel under the name of Ozias Midwinter, was a spoiled child of the planter class. He confesses that "My boyhood and youth were passed in idleness and self-indulgence, among people - slaves and half-castes mostly - to whom my word was law."

Made unexpectedly the heir to a great fortune, then tricked out of it by the father of the blond Allan Armadale, he avenges himself with a murder that he not only confesses on his deathbed but commits to a letter to be given to his son on his majority. The son, the second, dark Allan Armadale, is left in the care of his beautiful, part-African mother. Interestingly for an American reader, her mixed parentage is no barrier to another prosperous marriage. Murder, not miscegenation, as in so many of our country's fictions, is the great crux of Armadale.

No reader of mystery, or other fiction for that matter, will be surprised that the Armadale letter does untold mischief, first to the unhappy young son, who has a Dickensonian childhood, and later to his wealthy cousin. The latter is principally endangered by Miss Gwilt, greatly his intellectual superior, who knows far more about his family and his mother than rich and happy Allan Armadale ever suspects, and who intends to profit from this knowledge.

So far the plot is a typically complex family drama, but as in The Moonstone, Collins adds a supernatural touch. The young men meet after the younger Armadale, now the impoverished vagabond Ozias Midwinter, falls deathly ill at the local inn. Despite the warnings of the fatal letter, Midwinter becomes good friends with Armadale and finds himself unwilling to leave the first real happiness he has known.

A prophetic dream experienced by Armadale troubles Midwinter deeply but Armadale's rational old tutor and mentor persuades him that there is no such thing as curses and fatality. The rest of the novel balances those two possibilities. Sometimes a mysterious gothic fate hangs over the characters; sometimes it is dispelled by reason and, even more, by the virtues of kindness and fidelity.

Needless to say, the virtues of both men are severely tested and so is their aptitude for unraveling mysterious events. Here, again, Collins has a complex view. Detectives, strangely enough from one of the parents of the mystery novel, are thoroughly detestable, and probably the most loathsome character is Jemmy Bashwood, a professional snoop. Poor young Armadale, a person of great sweetness and candor, loses his reputation in the neighborhood when he and his lawyer make what are seen as nosey inquiries about the sly Miss Gwilt.

On the other hand, his faithful old tutor sets up a surveillance of a dubious woman without arousing either the author's or anyone else's ire. The professionalization of detection seems to have been what was beyond the pale. Perhaps Collins, whose two irregular households gave him a greater appreciation than most for privacy, had mixed feelings about activities that were necessary for his plot.

Investigation in Armadale goes on in a haphazard manner and all comes to a spectacular conclusion in what would be a favorite Victorian (and later) British venue, the dodgy private sanitarium. Fans of the gothic, the romantic, and yes, the mysterious, were not disappointed when Armadale ran first as a serial, then as a novel. Such fans won't be disappointed now, either.