Friday, 28 April 2017

"I love oo so" - does love redeem murder?

“Now let me hasten over the rest of my story” (The Little Witness, p47) – the narrator seems to be in a rush and trots on swiftly towards the next dramatic scene of the novel –  we will “skip over the next few months which followed.” (Ibid.)  They are summed up in a few sentences: “In the river … the body of a child, in every way corresponding to that of the missing one, was discovered … so disfigured and defaced” that it was assumed to be the body of Dora Hardy. (The Little Witness, p48). “For the rest, in spite of the most earnest endeavours, the indefatigable efforts on the part of the police, the affair completely baffled their skill.” (The Little Witness, p50). The murder of Old John remained unsolved and no one was looking to Dora, “when suddenly the long-sought clue was discovered.” (The Little Witness, p52). 

Billy Doike is injured by a frightened horse “somewhere in the extreme North of England” (The Little Witness, p52), he is found to be carrying burglars’ tools and he has a child with him the “child was Dora Hardy.” (The Little Witness, p54). The narrator decides that this part of the tale; the police catching and bringing Billy Doike to justice, “would take too long to detail now” (The Little Witness, p53).  The narrative is not interested in a murder investigation. Instead, the story cuts straight into the court room where “William Doike is charged with the murder of John Hardy … as yet there is not enough evidence to prove the case.” (The Little Witness, p55). 

Tinsley is writing a sensational, psychological drama and the narrative races to its second key scene (after the murder scene), when the judge calls Dora Hardy to bear witness against Billy Doike. The court recognizes that Dora’s “evidence cannot, in accordance with the law, be counted as such; but … it ought nevertheless to be heard.” (The Little Witness, p55). This is the key scene of the narrative; it is essential for dramatic effect and sensation, that Dora has her day in court.

Dora is not even five years old. While she does admirably well, considering she is supposedly standing in a court of law in front of a crowd of strange adults, what makes the scene particularly interesting is the methods the judge uses to put questions to a small child. The narrative here displays sensitivity and an awareness of the ways a child thinks and reasons. It also recognizes how the traumatic experience of witnessing the murder has been blocked by Dora’s mind out of her memory and she is incapable of talking about it. 

Both the way Dora’s mind deals with the murder of her grandfather and the judge’s methods of coaxing the information out of her are what we would today recognize, quite Freudian. This is interesting, considering that at this time was still experimenting with hypnotism and had barely started to outline his theories of the unconscious, repression and psychoanalysis.

The judge begins by establishing whether Dora can count time and help with the timing of the events. She cannot: “After this very plain proof that Dora’s knowledge of numeration table was not to be depended upon, the question of time was given up.” (The Little Witness, p58). Then he questions Dora about her life on the road with Billy Doike and establishes that Billy has taken good care of Dora and has treated her with great kindness and affection. Only then the judge approaches the critical events: he asks “But how was it you left gran’dad?” (The Little Witness, 61).  Dora’s mind blocks out the trauma: “I don’t remember, I don’t remember.” The judge changes his approach to indirect and more circuitous questioning: he “led the little one to talk of other things, hoping to win it by slow degrees.” (The Little Witness, p63). The court room has to listen to Dora prattling on about her pets and she has “a pretty unconscious action … her blue eyes grew big with delight and wonder.” (The Little Witness, 64). 

Finally, the judge approaches the traumatic experiences presenting them to Dora as a nightmare – it was only a bad dream (The Little Witness, p65). And where Dora could not speak of real memories, she is able to describe her nightmare: “I saw Billy Doike in zee dream.” “Was he the other man?” The judge asks. “Ess.” Dora confirms in her childish lisp. The effect on the court room is suitably dramatic: “the totally motionless crowd who seemed awestruck – paralysed by the evidence.” Billy Doike falls down in a dead faint (The Little Witness, p72) and the judge has “an image of a child leading [him] by the hand to the scaffolding.” (The Little Witness, p71) Dora is both an innocent, clueless witness – from the mouths of babes the truth – and an avenging angel leading Billy Doike to his death.

Dora does not understand that she has condemned Billy to death, instead she calls to him and begs to be let to go to him: “he takes her in his arms, dries her tears … “ and Dora says to him: “Oh, Billy! I’se so glad oo’se come back, cos I love oo so. I love oo so.” (The Little Witness, p76). Like the hero and heroine of a romance, Billy and Dora are then torn away from each others' arms when Dora is carried out of the court room. After this, Billy Doike makes a full confession and he is condemned to hang.

This is where the psychology of The Little Witness gets a little cloudy, but therefore all the more interesting. The remaining two chapters explore the relationship of Dora and Billy. Dora has fallen ill and is placed in care by the judge. Billy is locked up waiting for his sentence to be carried out. Dora’s fondness for Billy underlines her childish innocence and is thus understandable; she is a small child who attaches herself to the adult who shows her kindness and cares for her. She has blocked out the memory of the murder and her memory of Billy as the murderer. We could see her behaviour as a manifestation of the Stockholm syndrome.

Dora is an orphan, she lost both her parents, then her grandfather too, all before the age of 5. She is one messed up kid, and yet in the story she behaves like a traditional heroine of melodrama with all the appropriate religious and romantic feelings. This is where Dora as a toddler loses credibility and takes on some disturbing qualities of a grown up woman and Billy’s beloved.

Dora and Billy long for each other. Billy begs the judge to let him see Dora one more time, before his sentence is carried out: “he made a most heartfelt prayer to be allowed to see this child.” (The Little Witness, p 89, see also p90). Similarly Dora, restless in her fever, keeps asking “Why doesn’t he come? He promised to, and he hasn’t.” (The Little Witness, p104). The narrative reaches its final melodramatic climax. The evening before the execution, the night before Dora’s fifth birthday, Billy is led out of his cell in shackles (The Little Witness, p101) to visit Dora. The lovers are reunited for one fleeting moment. Dora, again, appears as a romantic heroine:

“The beautiful blue eyes opened under long lashes and stared over to the door; a flushed face became lit up as if by magic with an expression of wondrous happiness; the brown head was raised, and all weariness forgotten, two thin arms eagerly outstretched with a longing gesture.”(The Little Witness, p105). She cries out: “Billy! Oh, it’s my Billy – my Billy Doike come at last!” (The Little Witness, p106). How natural is it for a 5-year-old child to call a grown man "her" Billy?

Billy responds with equal passion: “Dora is clasped in a pair of strong arms – clasped with a frenzied fervour to a heart which beats until it is nigh to bursting.” (The Little Witness, p106).

The narrator goes to great lengths to assure us that Billy Doike is evil: “Do not let my reader for an instant think I would have him appear otherwise than he was – a murderer, in all the full meaning of the horrible name.” (The Little Witness, p92). He would get the end that such men deserve (The Little Witness, p86, 87). Leaving Dora, Billy is left alone in Dora’s room for a moment, with an open window. He does not escape, but “Alone he descended the stairs, crossed the hall, opened the door of the waiting van, got in and closed it after him.” (The Little Witness, p122).

Little Dora has not only softened the heart of the callous, criminal Billy and taught him to love her. She has had a benign moral influence on him. She prayed that God would make Billy good again so they could be reunited in Heaven (The Little Witness, p117). So why does Billy not escape? Has he become good? Is he hoping that he can redeem himself and be re-united with Dora in the afterlife? Or has his life lost meaning with the loss of her beloved Dora? If he has become good, does he still deserve to die? Is his love for Dora enough to atone for a career of crime and Old John's murder?

The Little Witness is a love-story about a 5-year-old abducted orphan and a career-criminal who murders her grandfather and abducts her. As distasteful and disturbing as this sounds, Tinsley succeeds in making her story sensational, gripping and emotionally heart-wrenching. This is a cracking little novel that plays with the reader’s ideas of good and evil, legal and natural justice, punishment and atonement.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Dora Hardy (Aged 4) - A Sensational Heroine

The Little Witness (1885) by Lily Tinsley is a curious mix of melodrama and psychological case study. It is a short, focused tale; there is only one plot line and only four characters of any significance. With its emphasis on key scenes, bursting with sentimentality and drama, there is an unmistakable theatrical quality to the text. The five chapters that make up the tale are clearly structured, each with a distinct setting and function. Despite being a little too mechanical, this structure works quite well to keep the reader’s interest and to move the story forward.

The Little Witness opens with an idyllic countryside scene in “Harrodean Court – Lord A-‘s country seat.” (The Little Witness, p2): “The park is one of the most beautiful to be found in the lower counties.” (The Little Witness, p1) In this park, stands a gate-keeper’s lodge, surrounded by a magnificent rose garden: “The whole place looked like a huge basket of flowers suddenly dropped from the skies.” (The Little Witness, p2).