An Interlude on Godsend Island

Somewhat stereotypically, I have always associated the sensation novel with domestic space and the middle- to upper-class household.  Even though The Moonstone ends in the jungles of India (if I remember correctly) and The Woman in White sends its male protagonist off to a tropical island for awhilethe majority of the intrigue occurs at home.  This is certainly also true in Lady Audley’s Secret, despite George Talboys’ trip to Australia.  So I was surprised that so much of Charles Reade’s Foul Play occurs outdoors, in an open boat, and then on a deserted island.

As one would expect, Helen and Hazel end up domesticating the island, so that it resembles an English hearth more than an uncharted island a thousand miles off the coast of Valparaiso.  Helen makes fashionable clothing out of coconut leaves and sealskin, and Hazel draws a map of the island, domesticates a baby seal that he names Tommy, and decorates Helen’s cave with pearls.  Another typical use of islands in literature is to create an upside-down world where the sick are healed and the sexes are reversed.  Check for Godsend Island.  The fresh tropical air completely cures Helen of her consumption, although it gives Hazel rheumatism (but then cures him too).  And, on schedule, “the sexes became in a measure reversed–Helen the fisherman and forager, Hazel the cook and domestic” (347).  The island clearly evokes an Edenic paradise, where Hazel is a free man, and Helen is free to fall in love with the right man.

But the thing that really interests me about Godsend Island is how it is commodified and used as a bargaining chip in the larger detection plot.  The action of Foul Play begins with a subversive act of writing: Arthur Wardlaw forges his father’s signature on a check that he hands over to Robert Penfold, who unknowingly cashes it.  There is a slippage in this plot between writing and legibility–writing loses its ability to point back to the writer.  Mr. Undercliff’s presence later in the novel argues that this connection between writer and writing is supremely important to a smoothly functioning social order.  Strangely, all the writing on Godsend Island restores this connection.  First, Hazel writes on the rocks to warn ships not to get too close to the dangerous reefs–and to point back to the existence of humans on the island.  Then, he figures out the island’s latitude and longitude and writes it on scraps of paper that he attaches to ducks.  Even Arthur’s letter, which he brings back to England with him, ends up being the final connecting link in the detection of Arthur as the forger.  Writing becomes a material process on this island, as we see how Hazel makes the ink and the paper to carry out the act of writing.

The ostensible purpose of Hazel’s acts of writing on Godsend Island is to find rescue for Helen, who initially wants desperately to get back to England.  So, the endgame of this writing should eventually keep the island uncultivated….  For most of this time, it’s just a backdrop to a love story–scenic, picturesque, and aesthetic.  In fact, even when Hazel discovers pearls, his first instinct is to use them to decorate the walls of Helen’s cave.  But after General Rolleston leaves with Helen, the island becomes a commodity.  The pearls come down off the wall, samples of all the island’s commodities get packed into a homemade raft, and Hazel even digs up the wreck of an old Spanish treasure ship.  He literally trades the island in order to get off the island.

This is where the American colonizer, Joshua Fullalove, becomes interesting.  I think we’re supposed to like him, since he’s the narrative mechanism by which Rolleston finds his daughter, and by which Hazel gets back to England.  But he’s a colonizing slaver, so I guess this is one of those weird moments when we are supposed to avoid presentism while reading nineteenth-century popular literature.  When General Rolleston meets him, he says, “Ye see I’m colonizing that darned island: an’ sowing it with grain, an’ apples, an’ Otaheitans, an’ niggers, an’ Irishmen, an’ all the other cream o’ creation” (361).  Even on a first reading, I took this as a foreshadowing that Godsend Island would eventually be colonized.  And, after Hazel does eventually sell Godsend Island to Fullalove, we learn that “Fullalove’s first move was to get a lease of the island from the Chilian government, and it was no part of his plan to trumpet the article he was going to buy” (505).  Wow.  Just wow.  Anyway, the 50% profits from the island eventually make Robert Penford rich, and he builds a replica of Godsend Island on his property in England, where he proposes to Helen.  An island for an island, I guess.  Even the name Helen gives the island–Godsend Island–evokes the sense of manifest destiny that leads to colonization in the first place.

Perhaps what’s interesting me about this commodification is its larger place in the routes of trade weaving themselves throughout this narrative.  First of all, the work of the Wardlaws’ merchant company, Arthur’s treacherous trade between the Shannon and the Proserpine, the subtle and painstaking negotiations Helen has to go through to trade one fiance for another, the trade of peace of mind for money (especially in Wylie’s case), and finally  the trading of this island…. all of these trades work to confuse the identities that the narrative tries to reinstate.  I’d like to use some Marx more thoroughly here to talk about how handwriting (or writing in general) works as an exchange value in the novel’s various lines of trade.


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Filed under Primary literature (novels)

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