Information Gathering, Writing, and Performance

The detective plot of Charles Reade’s Foul Play does not really happen until about the last third of the novel.  Between (approximately) chapter 22 and chapter 49 (pages 193-395), Helen and Hazel are stranded on Godsend Island, and very little attention is given to the subplot involving Arthur Wardlaw.  The conventional sensation theme of detection and information gathering surfaces superficially in the early part of the novel, when Seaton (later Hazel) discovers the plot to “crack the crib” of the Rollestons, and then later in the novel when General Rolleston tracks Helen down in the middle of the ocean, on an uncharted island.  And of course, Hazel also discovers the plot to “scuttle” the Proserpine.  All of these instances showcase the values of manly vigor that this novel often appears to advance a bit misogynistically (an understatement…).

Thus, I was surprised to see Helen emerge as the detective figure in the last third of the novel.  Well, actually, I would like to call her a detective figure, but Reade’s narrator advises against this characterization:  “she was no female detective, but a pure creature bent on clearing innocence.  The object of her life was, not to discover the faults of Arthur Wardlaw, or any other person, but to clear Robert Penfold of a crime” (420).  This immediately led me to compare her to Robert Audley, whose status as a detective no one questions–it certainly helps to be a man in these situations.  (In fact, Helen is constantly reminding herself to follow Hazel’s advice to be “as obstinate as a man, as supple as a woman” when carrying out her investigation).  The focus of Robert’s investigation does seem to be about discovering the faults of Lucy Audley, along the road to finding George Talboys.  These two novels set up quite a neat gender parallel:  in Lady Audley’s Secret, a female author writes about a male detective going after a female criminal, while in Foul Play, a male author writes about a female detective (who he refuses to identify as a detective) going after a male criminal (to clear the name of another male “criminal”).

The parallels continue to add up as the detective plot continues.  In my paper on Robert Audley’s professionalization plot, I discussed the first brief he writes, which is about the circumstances surrounding his friend’s disappearance.  This paper made me think that I was interested in plots of professionalization, but maybe I’m actually more interested in the process of information gathering, and the writing process it generates.  For example, as a gentlewoman, Helen has no professional identity (other than being the angel of the island, as it were).  However, she follows Robert Audley’s example of writing a brief.  “In this trying interval,” the narrator tells us, “she set up a diary, for the first time in her life; for she was no egoist: and she noted down what we have just related, only in a very condensed form, and wrote at the margin: Mysterious” (421).  The narrator goes out of his way to tell us that this was not a typical feminine diary (“she was no egoist”), and its “condensed form” sounds very similar to Robert Audley’s brief to me.

I think that both Helen and Robert are writer/researcher figures, and that this connection to the writing process is part of what makes the idea of theatrical adaptation so intriguing.  I wonder if (and how) writing was represented on stage, or if the much more dynamic process of information gathering was the main focus.  Also, theatrical adaptation adds in the process of “rewriting” as an area of focus.  Finally, I’m noticing a strange distinction between figures of writer/researchers in these two novels (Robert and Helen), and figures of performers (Lucy Audley, Arthur Wardlaw, and Penfold/Seaton/Hazel).  The writer-detectives, Robert and Helen, are presented as somehow authentic, perhaps innocent (especially in the case of Helen), or at least pure and single-minded.  And these writers are literally obsessed with pinning down and defining the one “true” identity of the performers whose identities are so confusingly plural and polyvalent.  I wonder if this points to a larger genre battle between page and stage–an antitheatrical prejudice implicit in novels that were nonetheless so uniquely adaptable and polyvalent themselves.

Gender is also a huge factor in these comparisons between Robert and Helen.  Robert’s musings during his investigation often trail off into misogynistic rants, so the madonna/whore complex he uses as a lens through which to identify Clara and Lady Audley clearly color his research process.  And of Helen, Reade’s narrator says:

Up to this time Helen’s sex, and its attributes, had been a great disadvantage to her.  She had been stopped on the very threshold of her inquiry by petty difficulties, which a man would have soon surmounted.  But one fine day the scale gave a little turn, and she made a little discovery, thanks to her sex.  Women, whether it is that they are born to be followed, or are accustomed to be followed, seem to have eyes in the back of their heads, and instinct to divine when somebody is after them. (435)

The idea of being watched also seems like a useful point in this discussion, since generations of feminist critics have analyzed the finer points of the male gaze until students of literature like me have simply taken to underlining any moment when anyone looks at anything.  But despite the fear that scopophilia’s heyday in literary criticism may be past, I think the (perhaps overdone) idea of the gaze is clearly relevant to any discussion of theater.  On a very fundamental level, any detective plot adapted for the stage puts the audience in the metatheatrical situation of watching someone watch someone (and Braddon explicitly connects this situation to Hamlet).  And when Charles Reade explicitly adds gender into this act of watching, it intriguingly blurs the boundaries between researcher and performer, actor and audience (for example, if I identify Helen as a “writer,” to what extent does her knowledge of being watched also make her a “performer”? And what gender implications does this characterization have?).

Eventually, I would like to continue these connections with The Woman in White, especially in relation to Marian’s diary.  The feminine form of the diary and the masculine form of the legal brief are interacting in fascinating ways in these three texts.  And I think that Hazel keeps a diary during the first part of his voyage on the Proserpine, which Reade’s narrator excerpts for us….


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