Foul Play is a novel by Charles Reade, but it was written in collaboration with Dion Boucicault, who wrote it as a play. Reade’s collaboration with Boucicault, combined with the word “play” in the title, makes me think that the narrative thematizes theatricality in some significant way. Right now, I’m really interested in John Hazel’s character, since he reminds me of Lady Isabel in East Lynne, in terms of theatricality. Lady Isabel Vane became Madame Vine thanks to some superficial physical changes, and Robert Penfold becomes James Seaton, who becomes Rev. John Hazel, just by shaving off his beard. This multiplicity of self is what Nina Auerbach talks about in Private Theatricals, and is part of what fed the Victorian anti-theatrical prejudice (although Lynn Voskuil revises Auerbach’s historical narrative, I think).
The other thing that fascinates me about Penfold/Seaton/Hazel is his relationship to professionalization. It doesn’t surprise me at all that, in sensation novels, when a character changes his/her identity, the character’s class status changes as well. In that respect, perhaps there is some overlap between the sensation novel and the picaresque. But early in the 1860s, when Lucy Audley changes her identity, she goes from being a middle-class housewife to being an aristocratic housewife. (That narrative is really more about Robert Audley’s professionalization, perhaps). And when Lady Isabel becomes Madame Vine, she goes from being a housewife to being a governess, which isn’t quite as dramatic as the switches in Foul Play (these comparisons are clearly divided along gender lines…). In Foul Play, Robert Penfold is a tutor, James Seaton is a gardener and then a clerk, and John Hazel is a minister, builder, and amateur botanist, a sailor, an explorer, and later a merchant. I’d really like to compare Penfold/Seaton/Hazel to Robert Audley, since their characters depictions are so full of detailed skill sets, but in such completely different ways.
Also, Arthur Wardlaw is introduced in Foul Play as a mimic: “Young Wardlaw, you must know, was blessed or cursed, with Mimicry; his powers in that way really seemed to have no limit, for he could imitate any sounds you liked with his voice, and form with his pen or pencil” (5). All of his forgery is really mimicry, and it also has direct effects on his professional identity. But Hazel is really a mimic too, so these characters are clearly the conventional psychomachian foils typical of melodrama.
But, despite the psychomachian element to melodrama, I remember reading a source (was it Peter Brooks?) who said that separating melodramatic characters into “good” and “bad” doesn’t really work, even though these simplistic designations are what the mode is known for. I can definitely see this in Foul Play, where none of the characters are fully good or evil. The narrator sympathizes with Arthur Wardlaw at times, because of his redeeming love for Helen, and criticizes Penford/Seaton/Hazel at other times, because of his cynicism. Even Wylie–who initially seems like the quintessential villain’s evil sidekick–gets a complex set of motivations, followed by a happy ending. All of the characters succumb to despair at one point or another (even the normally steadfast fathers, one of whom momentarily agrees to pine away on the island while watching his daughter live in sin, and the other of whom gives up and dies after discovering that his son is a forger). Anyway, the characters may not have the exposed-nerve interiority of a George Eliot character, but I can definitely see how Charles Reade considered himself a part of the Realist tradition.
John Wardlaw: a rich and well-respected merchant. On the verge of retirement, he decides to hand his business over to his son, Arthur. He sponsors General Rolleston’s voyage on the Springbok to go find Helen. He also petitions the Queen for greater recognition for General Rolleston, who eventually gets a baronetcy thanks to him. However, his impeccable respectability prevents him from coping with his son’s misdeeds, so once he finds out about Arthur’s multiple forgeries, he signs the business over to the Penfolds and dies three days later.
Arthur Wardlaw: “he was one man under his father’s eye, and another down at Oxford” (5). He takes a degree, with the help of his tutor, Robert Penfold (son of his father’s cashier, Michael Penfold). Grateful for his tutor’s help, he petitions his father for the money to buy Robert a living near Oxford, which his father refuses. Arthur uses his mimicry skills to sign a check in his father’s name, but the forgery is promptly detected and blamed on Robert, who gets arrested and shipped to Australia. Arthur feels incredibly guilty, but not guilty enough to intervene in Robert’s defense. And not guilty enough to avoid falling in love with the beautiful-but-secretly-consumptive Helen Rolleston, who agrees to marry him. Arthur gets into deeper and deeper trouble as the narrative continues. After his forgeries are discovered, he clears Robert and then promptly goes mad, spending the rest of his days in a lunatic asylum (a la Lady Audley).
Michael Penfold: Robert’s father, who has been working for the Wardlaws for years. He is a ruined gentleman, and very kind and timid. He trusts the Wardlaws implicitly until Nancy Rouse arouses his suspicions about Arthur. His connection at the Bank of England eventually helps detect Arthur’s forgery, since he traces the 2,000 pounds in bank notes from Wylie back to Arthur.
Robert Penfold: a devoted son who gets wrongly convicted of forgery. The unfairness of his conviction “injured his mind; and, before half his sentence had expired, he sailed for a penal colony, a man with a hot coal in his bosom, a creature embittered, poisoned; hoping little, believing little, fearing little, and hating much” (23). After “Hazel” gets himself off Godsend Island toward the end of the novel, Robert makes his way back to England to confront Arthur. After John Wardlaw signs his business over to the Penfolds, Robert leaves it in the care of his father and buys a vicarage. He restructures the lake to look like Godsend Island and ends up marrying Helen.
James Seaton: the name Robert Penfold gives himself after his petition for a ticket of leave (I think that’s like probation) is accepted. He asks Lieutenant-General Rolleston for a job working with his hands, and Rolleston gives him a job as a gardener at his house. To Penfold’s request to work under an assumed name, he says: “If you really mean to change your character, why, the name you have disgraced might hang round your neck. Well, I’ll give you every chance. But […] if you go a yard off the straight path now, look for no mercy–Jemmy Seaton” (27). While working in Rolleston’s garden, Seaton falls in love with his daughter, Helen, who takes walks in the garden. After he learns that robbers plan to break into her house, he sleeps outside her window to protect her, and ends up foiling the robbers’ attempts, and getting shot in the process. Thus, he earns the respect of both General Rolleston and his daughter, Helen, who exerts herself to find him a job as a clerk, which he accepts.
When Seaton finds out that Helen is sailing for England to marry Arthur Wardlaw, his eternal nemesis, he vows to prevent the marriage at all costs. In the process of making sure that the ship Helen plans to sail to England on is safe, Seaton stumbles upon another forgery (the first mate of one of Wardlaw’s ships switches the freight of one ship with that of another). Seaton decides to find a way to board the ship with Helen, so he shaves off his luxurious beard, which apparently renders him unrecognizable (to everyone but Mr. Wylie, the first mate of the Proserpine).
Rev. John Hazel: Robert Penfold’s second alias, which he uses to gain entrance to the Proserpine in order to watch over Helen. On the voyage to England, he gains Helen’s trust, but then inadvertently confesses his love for her after he finds out that she is dying of consumption. Meanwhile, he uncovers Mr. Wylie’s plot to purposely sink the Proserpine, and tries to warn Helen and the rest of the crew. Wylie succeeds in sinking the ship, but Hazel, Helen, and several crew members make it into a lifeboat. Despite having almost no food or water, Hazel helps keep Helen alive for the entire voyage, which ends when they find a deserted island.
Joseph Wylie: The first mate of the Proserpine. He uses augers to drill holes in the ship and successfully “scuttles” it. After watching the drunk captain inadvertently go down with the ship, he escapes into a lifeboat. After leading the other lifeboat (containing Hazel and Helen) toward the faint promise of land, he changes course in the middle of the night to try to get on the trade route. He starts feeling guilty about this when he realizes that his ship contains most of the food and water supplies that the escapees took from the Proserpine. He goes back to England thinking that he has condemned all the people on the other boat to death.
We later find out that Wylie partnered with Arthur Wardlaw because he wanted to engage himself to Nancy Rouse, who stipulated that she would only marry him if he came up with 2,000 pounds to buy her a property where she could run her laundry business. After lots of misunderstanding, they do marry and get their business.
General Rolleston: Helen’s father. He follows Helen to England in the Shannon, only to find out that her ship, the Proserpine, has sunk. He finds out the coordinates of the shipwreck from Wylie and, with the help of John Wardlaw’s cash, he embarks on a mission to find his daughter. He eventually succeeds, although he finds her in love with Hazel, not wanting to leave the island. He coaxes her back to England through their mutually strong sense of duty (she is engaged to Arthur, after all), and leaves Hazel on the island, since his criminal status keeps him exiled from England. He’s a bumbling misogynist, but he loves his daughter.
Helen Rolleston: the very complicated heroine. She agrees to marry Arthur, although she doesn’t really love him. In Australia, she’s dying of consumption, but by the time she gets shipwrecked with Hazel, intense starvation and dehydration seems to cure her, making her strong enough to steer to boat hundreds of miles across the ocean. Her time with Hazel on the island is a bit of an emotional roller coaster. Episodes of friendly feeling are interspersed with periodical temper tantrums. Eventually she falls in love with Hazel, which puts her in an awkward situation, as a pure Victorian angel in the house (they are co-habitating alone on an island and she is engaged to someone else).
Upon leaving Hazel on the island, she agrees to clear his name when she gets back to England, and not to marry Arthur until she does. After multiple setbacks and occasional lapses in focus, she makes enough friends in high places to uncover Arthur’s treachery and clear Robert’s name.