Category Archives: Primary literature (novels)

More on “The Octoroon”

I didn’t think this novel would be useful, but actually, I’ve just come up with some interesting connections between The Octoroon and Lady Audley’s Secret.

To begin with, here’s Nella Larsen in Passing (wrong century, I know, but still a helpful quote):

Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro? Absurd! Impossible! White people were so stupid about such things for all they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. (16)

This is a perfect articulation of what I was reacting to in my summary of The Octoroon–you can’t tell by looking that someone has that proverbial “one-drop-of-African-blood”!!! But of course, white people’s perspectives in 1861 were quite different than they are now. Mortimer Percy is able to discover, on page 4 of the novel, that Cora Leslie is a slave.

“A slave?” exclaimed Gilbert.

“Yes. The African blood runs in those purple veins. The hereditary curse of slavery hovers over that graceful and queen-like head.”

“But her skin is fairer than the lily.”

“What of that? Had you been a planter, Gilbert, you would have been able to discover, as I did, when just now I stood close to that lovely girl, the fatal signs of her birth. At the extreme corner of the eye, and at the root of the finger nails, the South American can always discover the trace of slavery, though but one drop of the blood of the despised race tainted the object upon whom he looked.” (4)

In Braddon’s novels, there’s a lot that a man can tell about a woman just from looking. Or at least, there’s a lot he thinks he can tell. This moment of recognition in The Octoroon–this moment of a man looking critically at the female body and discerning a secret–happens also at two key points in Lady Audley’s Secret. When George Talboys and Robert Audley look at Lady Audley’s portrait, they think they can interpret it just as accurately as Mortimer Percy interprets Cora Leslie. But even more similarly, the mad doctor who looks at Lady Audley also thinks he can see the one drop of blood, the hereditary taint of insanity–again, just by looking. This connection strengthens the strain of scholarship that sees Lady Audley as a victim of the male gaze, since she gets treated the same way as an American slave (and again, although The Octoroon engages plenty of offensive stereotypes, it’s clear that Braddon was anti-slavery). In both of these cases, the female body becomes a problem to be solved, or a mystery to be detected. This is strikingly apparent in The Octoroon, since the entire novel devotes its gaze to Cora Leslie and whether she does or does not look like a slave… but Paul Lisimon is in exactly the same situation she is, and nobody cares or even notices that he’s an octoroon. This process gets complicated a lot more in Lady Audley’s Secret, as it’s sometimes unclear who is mad–Robert or Lady Audley. And of course, the mad doctor initially thinks he might be there to diagnose Robert. Anyway, these are interesting connections, so perhaps The Octoroon will make it into my dissertation….?

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“The Octoroon: Or, the Lily of Louisiana,” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

This was a fascinating novel to read, although I don’t think it will factor into my dissertation at all. I just really wanted to read a British anti-slavery novel, since I’ve never read one before. It was pretty much what I expected: slavery is bad, and the British can’t understand why barbaric Americans are barbaric. The “barbaric American” part is pretty accurate, and certainly in line with American anti-slavery novels, but…. good thing the British never engaged in barbaric acts of oppression against people of other nationalities. In other words, it seems like British anti-slavery novel = pro-British-nationalism novel. Not surprising. The Octoroon makes so many references to how everyone in England is free that I’d love to see what would happen if The Octoroon met Mary Barton or North and South. Very fascinating, nonetheless.

Here is a character list:

Cora Leslie (aka “the OCTOROON!!!”): Daughter of Louisiana plantation owner Gerald Leslie and Francilia, his quadroon slave. Gerald takes Cora from her mother when she is about 5 and sends her to England for her education. She looks white and is raised as a white woman in England (where everyone’s free, so it doesn’t matter anyway). As the novel opens, she finds out that her father is on the verge of financial ruin, and she insists on going home to Louisiana with her friend Adelaide and Adelaide’s family, to comfort her father. Of course, as soon as she hits southern soil, she’s a slave, and everyone seems to know her history except for her. Her father’s mulatto slave, Toby, finally tells her the truth, and when her father’s estate is foreclosed upon, she is seized and sold to Augustus Horton, a super-racist plantation owner (“super-racist plantation owner” = redundant) who wants to make her his mistress. Her British lover, Gilbert Margrave, tries to buy her, but Augustus outbids him. Then he steals her and marries her. They live happily ever after in the wonderful land of England, where everyone is free and happy (believe it if you can).

Gilbert Margrave: Obscenely perfect British guy who is so British that he just can’t seem to wrap his head around the concept of slavery. (The British have no experience with such things, after all). In fact, he’s invented some machinery that will supersede slave labor. Technology is the answer to slavery…. He’s a poet, a painter, and a super-rich speculator, and he falls in love with Cora Leslie at first sight. His friend, Mortimer Percy, tells him that she’s clearly a daughter of the “accursed race of Africa,” but that only makes him love her more (he’s the knight-in-shining-armor type). He follows her to Louisiana and defends her honor against Augustus Horton, who insults her repeatedly. They fight a duel and Augustus wounds Gilbert, but Cora nurses him back to health. After she is seized as a slave, Gilbert tries to buy her for $20,000, but Augustus outbids him (for $50,000). Then Gilbert and Gerald Leslie organize a rescue operation and steal Cora back from Augustus. True to his word, Gilbert marries Cora and takes her back to merry old England.

Mortimer Percy: He’s a plantation owner who’s engaged to his cousin, Adelaide Horton (Augustus Horton’s sister). He’s not romantic, and not really in love with Adelaide, which is not a problem at first, since Adelaide’s in love with Gilbert. He’s also one of those frustrating characters in white anti-slavery novels: he’s a “good” slave owner, who doesn’t beat his slaves or work them too hard. In fact, when he hears that Gerald Leslie was wounded in a slave rebellion, he responds, “when dogs are too violently beaten, they are apt to bite” (11). See? Slavery can work as long as everyone is nice to each other–or maybe it’s still really wrong…. These are the vacillations of this novel…. As Mortimer explains Mr. Leslie’s dilemma to Cora, he says: “the planter finds himself between the horns of a terrible dilemma; he must either beat his slaves or suffer from their laziness. [yes, poor plantation owner! see how much slavery makes him suffer!] Mr. Leslie is not considered too indulgent a master; but he only follows the example of the greater number of our colonists. However, it is not he, but his overseer who was the chief cause of this revolt” (11). So… this character is odd. He’s also an embodiment of that myth that white people could tell immediately, just by looking, whether someone has even a drop of African blood. He discerns Cora’s entire history just by looking at her finger nails. Whaaaat?! Anyway, he stands up for Cora repeatedly, and he breaks off his engagement with Adelaide when she acts too racist, so he’s meant to be portrayed as a good guy. He ends up marrying Adelaide when she ultimately proves that she’s not super-racist, by hiding the escaped Cora and Gilbert from her brother.

Adelaide Horton: She and Cora have been best friends all through school. She abandons Cora as soon as she learns of her heritage, but it turns out that it wasn’t really from prejudice… it was from jealousy, since she loves Gilbert Margrave, who loves Cora. A fit of jealousy leads her to denounce Cora in front of a boatload of passengers and make her move to the back of the boat because of her single drop of African blood (what is the 19th century’s obsession with this “single drop” of African blood? THAT’S NOT HOW BLOOD WORKS!!!). Mortimer Percy, who basically spends the entire novel keeping tabs on the finer points of Adelaide’s racial sympathies (you know, in all the free time he has while his slaves are picking his cotton) eventually breaks off the engagement (although, strangely, it’s more because of Augustus’s reprehensible behavior than Adelaide’s). Adelaide saves the day at the end of the novel and proves herself not-a-racist by taking her brother up on a promise to transfer ownership of Cora from himself to Adelaide (he means to make her a lady’s maid in return for her running away). As Cora’s lawful owner, Adelaide transfers ownership from herself to Gilbert, who sets Cora free. She also hides the lovers in her bedroom, right under Augustus’s nose. When Mortimer finds out about this, he falls in love with Adelaide (or realizes that he always loved her?) and they get married.

Gerald Leslie: Cora’s father and the owner of a big plantation and lots of slaves. He fell in love with Francilia, a quadroon slave, and Cora’s mother. Although Francilia was in love with another slave, Toby, Gerald made her his mistress (he thought his own wife was a bitch, and she didn’t have any kids, so it was okay, right?). Francilia was super-depressed about being Gerald’s mistress, but things started looking up when Cora came along. But Gerald loved Francilia, and he loved Cora, too. And the thought he should do the right thing and take Cora away from her mother and send her off to be educated in England. So that’s what he did. And Francilia was super-depressed again, and he couldn’t stand to look at her sad face making everything all sad, so he sold her. To Silas Craig. Silas figured he could sleep with her pretty easily, but she wouldn’t consent, so he decided to rape her, but she killed herself. Cora begs Toby to tell her this story, and she denounces her father after she hears it. Then she goes an visits her mother’s grave (which Toby made) and forgives her father. But he’s still in financial ruin because Silas Craig cheated his partner, Philip Treverton, out of $100,000. So he loses his estate, his slaves, and his daughter (who is technically a slave) until Silas Craig is proven to be a usurer. Then he gets everything back and moves to England with his daughter and Gilbert. Good thing it all worked out for him. Blerg.

Silas Craig: He’s a lawyer and a usuer. Among his many illegal maneuvers, he owns a gambling house that everyone seems to patronize, but that everyone also seems to hate themselves for patronizing. He’s got several scams going in this novel. One of the big ones relates to Gerald Leslie and his partner, Philip Treverton. When Gerald Leslie heads to England to visit his daughter, he leaves Philip Treverton with $100,000 to pay Silas Craig back for a loan. Treverton pays Craig the money, but then Craig conspires to have Treverton killed, and when Leslie comes back, he is told that the money has not been paid. So he goes bankrupt. At the last minute, one of Craig’s henchmen, William Bowen, reveals the plot, since he’s mad that Craig stopped giving him blackmail money. (Also, William Bowen didn’t actually kill Philip Treverton. He nursed him back to health, and then Treverton became a gold-digger in California. He shows up just in time to denounce Silas). The other big scam relates to Don Juan Moraquitos and the forged will of his brother-in-law, Tomaso Crivelli. Tomaso Crivelli leaves all his money to his son, Paul Crivelli (aka Paul Lisimon). But with Silas Craig’s help, Don Juan kills Tomaso (who is already on his deathbed), forges a new will that leaves everything to himself, and tells Paul that Tomaso is not really his father. Don Juan’s daughter’s governess, Pauline Corsi, overhears this entire transaction, and eventually reveals it, blackmailing Silas Craig to send the real will to Paul. After these scams are revealed, Silas Craig leaves town in disgrace, lest he be subject to the Lynch Law.

Don Juan Moraquitos: He’s Camillia’s father, Tomaso Crivelli’s brother-in-law, and Paul Lisimon’s ward. He’s super-rich, and not a very nice guy, except to his daughter, whom he loves. He seems to treat Paul well, having him articled to become a lawyer (although he has him articled to Silas Craig), but in reality he has stolen his inheritance through a forged will. Other than Silas Craig, the only other person who knows about this is Pauline Corsi, his daughter’s French governess. After sitting on the secret for 13 years, Pauline eventually decides to blackmail Don Juan with it, and tells him to marry her or else she will reveal the secret. He agrees, and everything seems fine. But the day before the wedding, she meets her long-lost lover, and then she has a secret meeting with Don Juan (who knows what happens?), and he kills himself shortly afterward.

Pauline Corsi: She is raised for the first 17 years of her life as the only heir of an Italian Duke. This Duke had fallen out of love with his Duchess when she had not been able to give him an heir. She and her maid finally stole a peasant child one day and raised her as the heir. But on the maid’s deathbed, she confesses to the bait-and-switch, and Pauline’s true heritage is revealed. Her parents throw her out onto the street with $3000, and she goes to America in search of the French painter they wouldn’t let her marry. He’s also looking for her, but they don’t find each other until the day before her wedding to Don Juan. He’d been out digging for gold in California with Philip Treverton. Pauline makes a few under-handed attempts at blackmail through the course of the narrative, but meeting her long-lost lover restores her to virtue and they get married and move back to France.

Paul Lisimon/Crivelli: He’s the son of Tomaso Crivelli, Don Juan’s brother-in-law. He’s actually an octoroon too, but nobody seems to care about that nearly as much as they care about Cora being an octoroon. He has always been in love with Camillia, and she is in love with him too, although her father knows nothing of their arrangement. When Augustus Horton decides he’s going to marry Camillia, he discerns that Paul is his only rival, so he decides to get him out of the way. Since Paul works for Silas Craig, Horton arranges with Craig to entrust Paul with a pile of money and the key to his office, and to then accuse Paul of stealing the money. This works out okay, and Paul goes to jail. But he gets broken out by some sailor friends of his father’s, and he heads off to be a pirate with them for awhile. He eventually comes back just in time to rescue Camillia from losing her reputation at the hands of Augustus Horton, who has kidnapped her on the pretense of taking her to see her suddenly-sick father. Eventually, Pauline Corsi blackmails Silas Craig to publish a retraction to his accusation of theft against Paul, and to send Paul his father’s real will. Paul and Camillia eventually get married, after waiting a respectful amount of time for her to grieve for her dead father.

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Theater in “The Black Band; Or, The Mysteries of Midnight”

One of the main reasons I read this book was due to an article about three of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “theater novels,” The Black BandOnly a Clod, and The Cloven Foot. The article observed that it was strange that theatrical adaptations of these theater novels didn’t include any of the theatrical elements of the novels. You’d think that theatrical adaptors would have a heyday with novelistic actresses, actors, and playwrights, right? Nope. The article argues that since the class position of people associated with the theater was so delicate, and since playwrights and actor-managers were keen to see their class positions gain more clout, they effaced all references to the theater, even if they were positive. While novels could portray theater workers completely sympathetically as middle-class workers, theatrical professionals themselves didn’t want to foreground their own labor.

This is a great argument, and based on what I’ve read so far, I completely agree with it. Moving in a different direction, the thing that interest me most about theater in The Black Band is the echoes of Hamlet I’m seeing (or trying to see?). I’m interested in tracing Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s use of Hamlet in Lady Audley’s Secret, and I feel like there’s a lot to be said about The Black Band as well. Here, I’ll just try to trace some broad parallels.

First of all, the most obvious connection: Antony Verner is a tragedian who routinely plays Hamlet. And just like Robert Audley (the other Hamlet I’m identifying), he’s an amateur detective figure who falls in love with a girl named Clara (wow, Mary Elizabeth Braddon repeats names A LOT). Here’s my favorite quotation: “‘I dare not stop a moment longer to investigate this matter now,’ he added, looking at his watch, ‘or they will have to perform the tragedy of Hamlet with the part of ‘Hamlet’ omitted; but the first thing tomorrow morning, we will have the boxes cleared away and open this door, even though it should lead to some haunted chamber and I have to encounter the ghost single-handed” (274).

This brings us to the murderous brothers, which is a part that’s definitely missing from Lady Audley’s Secret. While Antony Verner is not investigating his own family, he’s still investigating the usurpation of one brother by the other. Frederick Beaumorris (Claudius) steals the inheritance of his brother, Jasper Melville/Arthur Beaumorris (Hamlet Sr.), and later tries to kill him via (what else?) poison. This fraternal usurpation is doubled in the Willoughby household, as Lionel usurps his brother’s title.

This gets me wondering about the use of play-acting to evaluate guilt. According to many accounts of the Victorian anti-theatrical prejudice, it seems like Hamlet’s method of trapping his uncle (in the famous Mousetrap scene) would be odious to Victorian audiences. In fact, Robert Audley doesn’t do much of this–he’s usually pretty direct with Lady Audley, as I remember. And the same goes for the aristocratic/upper-class characters in The Black Band: Robert Merton confronts Lady Edith directly, for example. However, Joshua Slythe (the word “sly” is even part of his name) definitely uses play-acting to catch criminals. This might be an interesting thing to investigate further… More later.

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Nationalism in “The Black Band; Or, The Mysteries of Midnight”

I, unfortunately, do not know much about the unification of Italy or the revolutions of the 1850s and 60s. But they must have interested Braddon, since this narrative is structured around two secret societies–one in England and one in Italy. I think the contrasts between these societies are noteworthy, and I’d like to think more about the political debates they engage.

First, of all, the Black Band is an organized crime ring. Its purpose is distinctly capitalistic, and its organization is strictly hierarchical. Colonel Oscar Bertrand, as the Grand Master, is at the top, and the rest of the members commit crimes that fit their rank (for example, the Marquis of Willoughby commits political espionage, while Joshua Slythe encounters lower-class criminals who do the dirty work of breaking into houses). The Mountaineers, on the other hand, are an underground political organization, and have a slightly more egalitarian model of organization. They all refer to each other as “brothers,” for example, and five “chiefs” share the leadership function.

However, they are an all-male organization; as the Marquis de Montebello tells Lady Edith, “Nay, dearest, […] the oaths that we take are too fearful to be spoken by such lips as thine. The task we have to accomplish involves death and danger. It is not for woman even to know of our struggles, much less to share them” (543). In the context of the larger novel, this is actually a pretty funny moment. Although the Marquis does not know this, Lady Edith knows much more about death and danger than he does (or at least as much). In fact, Braddon makes sure to include a chapter (an easily-forgotten chapter, perhaps) that credits a woman for the creation of the Black Band. Although Oscar Bertrand is the face of the Black Band for most of the novel, Rosine Rousel is actually the “accomplished trickster and cheat, who found a dupe and a tool in a young man of noble birth, and who taught him to become guilty as herself […] who guided the young officer’s hand in his first forgery […] who planned the first slender elements of that association which now overruns Europe with its depredations” (264, my italics). The Black Band was founded by a woman and continues to employ women as high-ranking criminals throughout the novel. And despite all the attention the narrative gives to Oscar Bertrand’s dark deeds, Rosine Rousel is probably the novel’s most formidable character. I mean, look at the novel’s very las lines:

We have followed the innocent and the guilty alike impartially through the intricate labyrinth of life. We have seen the innocent for a time oppressed–the guilty for a time triumphant; but we have also seen that the wondrous balance of good and evil will infallibly adjust itself in the end; and that a dire and unlooked for vengeance will alight upon the heads of those who defy the Power which rules this marvellous universe, or laugh to scorn the just and merciful laws of an All-Wise Providence. (607)

The wondrous balance of good an evil will infallibly adjust itself in the end?! Really? Well, Oscar Bertrand certainly gets his comeuppance, as does Lady Edith. But what about Rosine Rousel–the ostensible founder of the Black Band? She gets away with a small fortune in jewels and is never heard from again. Perhaps this is a common case of a baggy novel losing one of its needles in a haystack of characters…. or perhaps this is a powerfully dangerous female character who is allowed to outsmart the narrative in exchange for her discretion. The female elements of the Black Band are definitely interesting….

Perhaps this female element is why the Black Band is less bloody than the Mountaineers. The political ideals of the Mountaineers are definitely noble, and the characters associated with the Mountaineers are generally portrayed sympathetically. But in a key scene at the Rock of Terror, where the Mountaineers turn an Austrian trap back on the Austrians, Braddon’s narrator seems to chastise their bloodlust. While “Black Carlo” of the Mountaineers glories in the severed heads of his Austrian enemies, Braddon’s narrator says:

This ignorant man naturally forgot that the murdered soldiers were innocent of the wrongs of ill-used Italy. They only did the bidding of their master, and must have sacrificed their lives had they refused to do that bidding. It is thus that the puppets often suffer for the sins of him who pulls the strings. (559)

In stark contrast, the Black Band try to avoid all “unnecessary” killing. Colonel Bertrand explains it this way:

“Do you think these hands are ever stained, directly or indirectly, with unnecessary blood? It is only your vulgar villain who wades to the accomplishment of his purpose through the horrible ways of gore and guilt. No; death is but the last fatal instrument of the accomplished criminal. I have little need to deal with the poison chalice or the knife. A word, a look, and the creature who stands in my pathway is removed for ever, to drag out life in some dim obscurity; to lose his own identity; to disappear from the ranks of his fellow kind; so that his own brother, meeting him in the street, shall pass him by with a shudder of loathing; but still to live!” (266)

This is an odd speech, since Oscar Bertrand definitely kills the first Marquis of Willoughby in a duel, and he indirectly tries to poison Robert Merton (through Lady Edith), so clearly he’s not super-committed to avoiding gore and guilt. It’s probably a convenient speech that allows Braddon to keep the heir of Clavering alive… but I think it says something interesting about the ethos of the Black Band, as opposed to the Mountaineers. This speech at least tries to construct an ethos of “civilization” that the British would probably want to associate with their self-identity (however unjustifiably). The Mountaineers, of course, are bloodthirsty Italians (at least the “brigand” contingent of their ranks…), so the narrative tries to stain their hands, at least a little, with “unnecessary” blood.

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“The Black Band; Or, The Mysteries of Midnight,” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Like lots of Victorian novels, this one is huge, has lots of characters, and an intricate plot… and since I’d like to write about it, I need to keep the characters straight. Where do I even start? I just finished it last night, and I’m already forgetting people’s names…. Here goes:

Colonel Oscar Bertrand: The Grand Master of the Black Band, which is a secret society of organized crime. He’s Austrian, he’s trying to squelch the Italian rebellion, while also stealing everything from wills to wives to money from people back in merry old England. He marries Ellen Clavering, the daughter of one of his “slaves.” She has a huge fortune that nobody knows about, so when she has a son, he packs the new heir off somewhere, tells her he’s dead, and then tries to kill her too. Eventually, he messes with the wrong Italians (another secret society named the Mountaineers who are agitating for freedom) and is tricked into drinking poison that looks like wine. It turns him into an idiot and slowly and painfully eats away at his brain. He is left wandering the hills of Italy until he dies.

The Beaumorris Family:

  • Frederick Beaumorris: The oldest son of a rich family. Well, his uncle was rich, at any rate, and planned to leave his wealth to Frederick’s younger brother, Arthur, rather than to Frederick, as the eldest. So, Frederick forges a new will that gives him the inheritance. From there, he moves on to a life of crime and debauchery. He seduces the daughter (Ida Cleveland) of a man he ruins and subjects her to a sham marriage. When she finds out the truth, she briefly goes mad; when she regains her reason, she flees back to England with (of course) her baby, and dies in the streets. The baby, Rose, gets found and raised by Robert Merton’s old clerk, who loves her like a grandfather. Frederick eventually tries to seduce his niece, Clara (not knowing who she is). He is foiled by Oscar Bertrand, who saves him from incest only to blackmail him to join the Black Band. (If he doesn’t, Bertrand will reveal the forgery upon which his fortune rests). Eventually, Robert Merton falls in love with Rose, finds out the secret of her unknown history, tracks down Squire Cleveland (Rose’s grandfather) and Frederick Beaumorris (Rose’s father). Cleveland challenges Beaumorris to a duel for seducing his daughter, Ida. Beaumorris puts off the duel long enough to meet Rose, whose beauty and innocence purify his heart (of course). Then, at the duel, he kills himself and leaves his fortune to Rose. Of course, Rose does the right thing and gives the entire fortune to Clara and Arthur, to whom (as she discovers) it rightfully belongs.
  • Arthur Beaumorris: We meet him as Jasper Melville, a penniless gentleman who is living off of his daughter’s talent as a ballerina. He’s a broken man, but he loves his three children, and they are devoted to him. After his oldest, Clara, is kidnapped by Frederick Beaumorris (who doesn’t know he’s her uncle), he receives forged letters that make it look like Clara ran off with Frederick. He believes them, and when Clara escapes from her French prison and makes the trek back to England, she discovers that her father has disowned and abandoned her. He travels to a friend in the north, gets kidnapped by the Beaumorris forgery cover-up crew, and stashed in a madhouse. He’s in the madhouse for almost a year, gets rescued through the efforts of his daughter, via the detective Joshua Slythe, but is too weak to remember anything. Eventually he recovers, loves his daughter again, and waits around in his sickbed for the rest of the plot to work itself out.
  • Clara Beumorris: We first meet her as Clara Melville, a ballerina and friend of the prima ballerina, Lolota Vizzini. Despite being a ballerina, Clara is a virtuous gal, and rebuffs the constant flirting of Frederick Beaumorris (who doesn’t know he’s her uncle–I love writing that sentence, hahaha). A stand-up gentleman named Reginald Falkner helps her rebuff this flirting, and the two fall chastely in love. But when Sir Frederick kidnaps Clara, he sends forged love letters (from Clara to Frederick) to Falkner, who, like Clara’s father, believes the forgeries and breaks up with Clara. In the meantime, another stand-up guy, Antony Verner, falls in love with Clara. He’s a tragedian, and promises to restore Clara’s missing father, and her father’s missing fortune, if Clara will marry him. Although she doesn’t love him that way, Clara agrees, because, hey, he’s a great guy. Antony pretty much does everything he promises. He gets her father back, and her father gets his fortune back, although I think Rose Cleveland should get the credit for that one. Whatever, Clara gives Antony the credit and tells him she’s ready to marry him. Of course, Antony somehow magically knows about Reginald Falkner and writes to him to say that Clara has been wrongly accused of running off with her uncle. Reginald somehow magically believes Antony (how do they know each other?!), and Antony lets her out of the deal so that she can marry Reginald. What a great guy. Braddon lets him get married to some unspecified actress at the end.

The Willoughby/Merton Clusterfuck:

  • Lionel, Marquis of Willoughby: We meet him as the younger brother of the existing Marquis of Willoughby, who’s a great guy. So as the younger brother, Lionel’s not rich. But he loves a gold digger, so that’s a problem. He proposes to Lady Edith, who says she loves him, but can’t marry someone with no money. So he goes crying to his friend, Oscar Bertrand, who tells him to join the Black Band and he will get 1) his brother’s money and title, and 2) Lady Edith. Lionel joins the Black Band, and Bertrand orchestrates a situation in which Lionel brings his drunk brother to play cards with Bertrand, who cheats. The current Marquis accuses him of cheating, and since he’s drunk, challenges Bertrand to a duel. The Marquis loses, dies, and Lionel becomes the new Marquis. But he feels super guilty, and even when he eventually gets Lady Edith, he starts to hate her because she doesn’t feel guilty. As a member of the Black Band, he eventually moves to Venice with Lady Edith and becomes a secret agent in the Mountaineers, betrays them, and then feels even more guilty and flees from the Black Band and Lady Edith. He’s in love with Lolota Vizzini, so he flees to Naples with her. Braddon allows him to escape, even though these Mountaineer folks seem to think that they capture ALL the traitors (what about Lionel, guys?!). By the time he’s safe in Naples, Bertrand is already an idiot and it’s the end of the book. He spends the rest of his life married to Lolota, happily atoning for the sins of his youth.
  • Lolota Vizzini: She’s a famous ballerina and a typical virtuous victim. She got married to a loser at a young age (not her fault–she had a drunk father, and this guy was the lesser of two evils). The loser is actually an Italian double agent (member of the Mountaineers, but reports their activities to the Black Band). He dies (I don’t remember how), leaving Lolota free to fall in love with Lionel. She helps Clara out a lot throughout the novel, especially by sending her money to get back to England after she escapes from the Beaumorris estate in France. During the Italy portion of the book, Lady Edith can tell that Lionel is in love with Lolota, so she vows revenge against them both. She betrays Lionel as a traitor to the Mountaineers (who he did, in fact, betray), but he escapes their single assassination attempt (wow, they give up quickly). She then sends her maid to intercept Lolota as she flees to Naples (where Lionel has arranged to meet her) and send her to a plague-stricken quarter of town. The maid (Rosine Rouel) does this, and Lolota gets a near-fatal fever. Lionel arrives just in time, finds her, and takes her to a mansion, where she is nursed back to health by nuns and world-class physicians. They live happily ever after.
  • Lady Edith Merton: She rejects Lionel because he doesn’t have money. Right before he can tell her that he has become a Marquis and inherited all of his brother’s wealth, she marries Robert Merton, the merchant prince. Merton is filthy rich, but he started out poor, so he’s a totally great guy. Oscar Bertrand has already agreed to get Edith for Lionel, so he visits Edith and tells her to murder her husband by poisoning his champagne. She tries that when his back is turned, but stupidly, she fails to notice that she’s in front of a huge mirror, so he sees the whole attempt. He declares her insane (because why else would you try to murder a super rich dude?) and sends her off to his castle in Scotland to be locked up and watched by mad nurses. She makes a very creative escape attempt, which almost succeeds, before Oscar Bertrand successfully breaks her out. From there, he reunites her with her supposed love, Lionel, and the two are sent to Venice as members of the Black Band. She, apparently, has no soul, so Lionel promptly falls out of love with her. But whatever, she tries to have him killed and then bigamously marries the Marquis de Montebello, a high-ranking official in the Mountaineers. Oscar Bertrand shows up to remind her that she’s still a member of the Black Band, and instructs her to get lots of secrets out of her husband. She does, but as she’s telling them to Bertrand, a member of the Mountaineers listens in the shadows and the plans of the Black Band are gruesomely foiled. Now the Mountaineers know that she’s a traitor, so they extract the Marquis de Montebello and take him to a safe place. Then they take Lady Edith to a place called the Rock of Terror and bury her alive. As she’s on the verge of death, some goatherds rescue her and take her to the inn where Lionel and Lolota happen to be staying after their wedding, and in her dying moment she sees that Lionel is alive and all her plans have been foiled.
  • Robert Merton: Braddon keeps referring to this guy as the “merchant prince,” and that phrase is now kind of a pet peeve for me. Who knows why. Living the American dream in England, this guy started out as a stock boy or something like that, and is now the richest man for miles around. He’s also an autodidact, a talented politician who fights for the rights of the poor, blah, blah, blah. He marries Lady Edith, who tries to kill him, and then realizes that maybe he should have gotten to know her a bit more…. In the second half of the novel, as Lady Edith is out of sight, out of mind, he falls in love with Rose Cleveland, the faux-granddaughter of his old clerk. She’s also super in love with him, and tearfully reads his political speeches to her grandfather every time she finds them in the paper. The clerk’s nephew is also super in love with Rose, but of course, Rose is actually a rich girl in disguise, so Robert Merton is a much more suitable match. The nephew kind of falls out of the picture, especially after Robert Merton helps discover all of the secrets of Rose’s past and restores her to her rightful place in the Cleveland estate. After he is 100% sure that Lady Edith is dead (he even goes to Italy to double-check), he marries Rose (no bigamy for this guy… how boring).

That’s all I can handle so far. But I think this covers the main points.

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Lady Audley Book Illustration

Lady Audley Book Illustration

This is an illustration from the 11 April 1863 part issue of Lady Audley’s Secret entitled “Talboys Gazing at Lady Audley’s Picture.” Given my discussion of ekphrasis in Lady Audley’s Secret, this is an absolutely bizarre illustration. My conference paper already discusses some of the competing temporalities in the novel’s ekphrastic description of her portrait, but I haven’t really discussed this picture of a picture in a novel. Ekphrasis cubed? The level of meta- in this illustration is almost too much to handle. This is a picture of a picture of Lady Audley, being watched by George Talboys, who is being watched by Robert Audley, the entire scene of which is being looked at by…. me, at the moment… And the only thing I can’t really see in this picture is Lady Audley’s portrait–the illustration seems to refer me to the text it accompanies for a “view” of the portrait. So the illustration instructs me to go along with Robert Audley, and gaze at a gaze. George is clearly the focal point, the tip of the triangle constructed by my line of vision and Robert Audley’s. Or is Robert looking beyond George, at the portrait of Lady Audley? He’s conveniently hiding in the shadows, so we can’t tell. One of the points here, though, is that this is what ekphrasis does: it freezes the viewer, while the picture moves. This is a picture of frozen viewers, which nonetheless actively directs us back to the moving picture on the printed page. (And in an odd side note, the far right side of the illustration seems to contain one or two framed pictures that ARE oriented toward us–what’s up with that?)

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February 24, 2013 · 9:55 am

The String of Pearls, by James Malcolm Rymer

The last sentence of this novel is bizarre: “Johanna and Mark lived long and happily together, enjoying all the comforts of an independent existence; but they never forgot the strange and eventful circumstances connected with the string of pearls” (347). Thomas Preskett Prest is known as a “hack writer,” so I guess I don’t have to worry about the lack of psychological depth that that last sentence displays–after all the trauma Johanna and Mark have been through, how can they possibly not remember the “strange and eventful circumstances connected with the string of pearls”???? Why would their forgetfulness even be a question?

But what really intrigues me here is that the novel ends with the string of pearls–which shouldn’t be weird, given its title. But for me, this string of pearls is exactly what makes the object-relations in this 1846 novel different from those of the novels in the sensation decade. Basically, nobody in The String of Pearls really cares that much about this string of pearls. (Compare this to the pearls in Foul Play, which represent so many things and have so much affective weight…) Also, nobody really seems to know where these titular pearls come from. Colonel Jeffery tells Johanna that Mark Ingestrie got the pearls somewhere in his colonial adventures, but he hears this second-hand, from Mark’s friend Thornhill. During a shipwreck, Mark gives the pearls to Thornhill, thinking that he won’t survive, and wanting Johanna to have them as a token of his love. Here’s the part where, in a sensation novel, these pearls would have enormous emotional significance. In fact, Magdalen Vanstone and Frank have a similar relationship, and Magdalen treasures every trace of Frank she has in her possession. But here in The String of Pearls, Thornhill loses the pearls, and his life, to Sweeney Todd, and Johanna dismisses their affective significance altogether:

but what are pearls to me? Oh! would that they had sunk to the bottom of that Indian sea, from whence they had been plucked. Alas, alas! it has been their thirst for gain that has produced all these evils. (58)

And she later reiterates:

‘I do, indeed, care little for them,’ said Johanna, ‘so little, that it might be said to amount to nothing.’ (82)

So… we aren’t really encouraged to care about the pearls finding their way back to their rightful owner–which is a much different relationship than we have to, say, Magdalen’s inheritance, for example.

In fact, once Sweeney Todd gets ahold of them, hijinks ensue, and it’s hard to tell whose cause we should root for. At first it seems like Sweeney Todd is the wrongful owner of the pearls, but then a gang of thieves tries to steal them from him, and the narrator starts editorializing:

There is something awful in seeing a human being thus hunted by his fellows; and although we can have no sympathy with a man such as Sweeney Todd, because, from all that has happened, we begin to have some very horrible suspicions concerning him, still, as a general principle, it does no decrease the fact that it is a dreadful thing to see a human being hunted through the streets. (65)

So… now we kinda want Sweeney Todd to get away with the pearls?! And he does. And the pearls continue to circulate throughout the novel. And they eventually end up back with Mark and Johanna, as the novel’s final sentence indicates. But who cares? Nobody. The pearls are more of a plot device.

These matter-of-fact object-relations distinguish The String of Pearls from the account Lynn M. Voskuil gives of sensation drama, for example. Voskuil uses Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism to explain the “talismanic properties of commodities,” which “were precisely a function of their familiarity, their status as everyday, usable items” (78). Marx’s account of commodities, according to Voskuil, goes something like this:

Products are transformed into commodities, he says, when they begin to circulate in the marketplace and, in the act of exchange, appear to develop social lives of their own, independent of the producers who made them. What is more, commodities seem to have social lives their makers lack, for as private individuals working independently, the producers do not interact with each other directly–only their products do. (77)

In this sense, the string of pearls seems like a fetishized commodity, since it does develop a social life of its own through the act of exchange, and it does circulate independent of its producers (who are completely effaced).

However, Voskuil goes on:

Noteworthy in Marx’s account is the paradoxical doubleness that commodity fetishism promotes. How can real, everyday items becomes [sic] spectacles? How does their down-to-earth familiarity come to seem fantastic? Marx answers those questions by suggesting that we habitually engage in a complex suspension of disbelief. (77)

This applies neatly to sensation drama, as Voskuil shows, because mundane items become exoticized onstage. However, does this doubleness exist in the string of pearls? Is it both an everyday item and a fantastic spectacle? I don’t think so. At least, not compared to the objects that drive subsequent sensation plots. The string of pearls is merely an exchange-value… although, I guess in Marx that leads right into commodity fetishism…. But what I mean is that, given its “exotic” origins, the string of pearls is curiously un-exotic, relative to the objects in sensation literature. Johanna rejects it as a fetishistic object, and despite the last sentence’s connection of it with memories of “strange and eventful circumstances,” it seems strangely devoid of any emotional significance. It’s like an afterthought that reminds Johanna and Mark of their eventful past, whenever they happen to glance at it for a second.

Character List:

Sweeney Todd: The demon barber of Fleet Street. He has a special shaving chair that’s attached to a trap door, so that when he leaves the room to “get a sharper blade” he pulls the lever that drops his unfortunate client 20 feet below, onto a stone-floored basement. They usually die on impact, so that he can send their meat to Mrs. Lovett to bake into her famous pies and keep their money and/or valuables for himself. He employs apprentices, who he sends on errands while he’s killing people, but once the apprentices start suspecting something fishy, he has them committed to a madhouse and later killed. Johanna Oakley and a magistrate (Sir Richard) eventually catch him in the act and he gets hanged.

Tobias Ragg: Sweeney Todd’s apprentice, who starts suspecting mischief early on in his apprenticeship. He’s terrified of Sweeney Tood because Todd tells him that he once caught Tobias’s mother stealing from a wealthy family in whose service she was employed. Todd says he will accuse Tobias’s mother and get her hanged if Tobias doesn’t cooperate submissively with everything he says. But it’s not long before Tobias begins to suspect that Sweeney Todd is killing his customers, so, wracked by guilt, he decides to act upon his suspicions and search Sweeney Todd’s house. He finds huge caches of jewels and other valuables (including tons of hats). After this discovery, he heads to his mother’s house to say goodbye, intending to escape to sea. However, Sweeney Todd shows up and convinces Tobias’s mother (who is actually not guilty of any theft at all) that he is insane and needs to be committed to a madhouse. He eventually escapes with the help of a fellow madwoman (who’s not really mad).

Johanna Oakley: She’s in love with Mark Ingestrie, but Mark has no money, so he goes off to sea to make his fortune. He sets a date by when he should meet her and ask her to marry him, but when he doesn’t show up by the date, Johanna assumes the worst. She believes he is dead, and her fears are partially confirmed by Colonel Jeffery, who has never met Mark, but has heard Mark’s story from Mark’s friend, Thornhill. After Thornhill goes to be shaved and never returns (surprise, surprise), Colonel Jeffery investigates and shares his findings with Johanna (who he also falls in love with). After discussing her situation with her best friend, the romantic Arabella Wilmot, Johanna decides that Mark may have met his end at Sweeney Todd’s establishment, so she goes undercover dressed as a boy and becomes Sweeney Todd’s new apprentice. In this role, she displays much more poise, clear-headedness, and control over her emotions than poor Tobias, and becomes partially responsible for bringing Sweeney Todd to justice. She gets reunited with Mark, and they live happily ever after.

Mark Ingestrie: He’s in love with Johanna Oakley, but decides to seek his fortune abroad so that he can make enough money to marry her (and also have adventures, of course). After surviving a shipwreck in the Indian ocean, he gives a valuable string of pearls to his friend Thornhill, asking him to give the pearls to Johanna Oakley, since Mark thinks he will die at sea. He doesn’t die, however. Through a series of events that the novel doesn’t ever narrate, Mark makes it back to England, but he’s completely destitute when he gets there. He gets a job at Lovett’s bakery, only later finding out that the only way you can quit that job is to die. He bakes the pies, which is great at first, because he’s starving. But after he gets tired of only eating meat pies, he subsists on baked flour and makes a desperate attempt to escape. The desperate attempt leads him to break into a secret chamber, which presumably reveals that the meat pies he’s been making for several months are actually made of human meat. He escapes by flattening himself under a tray of pies and being hauled up in the pie elevator from his bakery prison cell. He denounces Mrs. Lovett, who promptly dies of poison (with which Sweeney Todd tainted her brandy).

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