Thursday, 18 October 2012

Why Do I Go On With This?

Robert Audley is not a happy detective. He feels the pangs of guilt and discomfort of every Victorian amateur sleuth. And he struggles with the question that haunts all amateur detectives in fiction: why go on since you are not getting rewarded for it? But Robert Audley has to go on for the plot to progress.

Robert's initial motivation for finding out the fate of George Talboys is his affection for the other man. After the accidental meeting in London, the winter spent together in Russia and their living together at Fig Court the two men are close and very fond of each other. Like Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, here are two young men living together like a couple, like lovers. It is unlikely that Braddon is intentionally suggesting this. George Talboys appears very much in love with his wife, Robert falls in love in with a woman in the course of the narrative as well. Homoeroticism is probably unintentional and possibly seen by our modern eyes in places where a Victorian reader would only see a friendship between blokes. The close relationship between the men is needed in the narrative, because it gives Robert Audley his first reason to find out what happened to George Talboys. As Robert Audley says: "Who would have thought that I could have grown so fond of the fellow ... or feel so lonely without him? ... I declare that I would freely give up all and stand penniless in the world to-morrow, if this mystery could be satisfactorily cleared away and George Talboys could stand by my side." (Vol. II, Chapter 2).

Detective work is highly dubious activity. It means prying into other people's secrets, and penetrating their private lives. Detectives have to talk to low-life, often associate with outright criminals and be familiar with the dirty underbelly of society. Muck sticks and criminality rubs off on those who detect it. Detectives' methods are questionable; they lie, deceive and entrap innocent people in order to extract clues and snippets of information from them. Detection is not respectable. It is no wonder that the first police detectives were viewed with mixed feelings (Metropolitan Police Detective Department was established in 1842). Often recruited from the working class, these plodding men could walk rough-shod over decent people's parlour carpets and poke their noses into the private matters of their betters. Inspector Buckett in Bleak House (1858) and Inspector Cuff in The Moonstone (1868) are two famous examples in fiction who illustrate the extraordinary position of the police detective seen as powerful and socially inferior at the same time. It was an intricate manoeuvre for a mid-Victorian author to make a detective the hero of the story. The motivations of amateur detectives had to be impeccable to justify their morally suspect activity.

Braddon's handling of Robert Audley's role as a detective is further complicated because he provides the main point of view in the narrative. Detectives, as the most active characters in plot-driven mystery novels, usually do. As readers follow Robert's investigation, we see the events from his perspective. We, too, get to experience the thrills and agonies of detective work. And while the reading experience is aimed to be titillating and exciting, this is not called sensation fiction for nothing, the reader must not be made to feel dirty or nosy or morally wanting. Braddon has to find a way around these dilemmas for us to enjoy the sensational unravelling of mystery in Lady Audley's Secret with a clear conscience and our sense of propriety intact.

Robert is painfully aware of his bad behaviour. He questions his own need to investigate George's disappearance and he is horrified by the prospect of a family tragedy at the end of it. "Why do I go on with this, ... when I know that it is leading me, step by step, day by day, hour by hour, nearer to that conclusion which of all others I should avoid? ... Should I be justified in doing this?" (Vol II, Chapter 1). "Why should I try to unravel the tangled skein, to fit the pieces of the terrible puzzle, and gather together the stray fragments which when collected may make such a hideous whole?" (Vol II, Chapter 2). Robert Audley bridles against his own compulsion to go on "the loathsome path - the crooked byway of watchfulness and suspicion" (Vol II, Chapter 6) and work his way ever closer to revealing Lady Audley's secret.

Robert's sense of responsibility as the keeper of terrible secrets is almost overwhelming and turns his care-free life into the miserable existence of a detective. He withdraws from his friends: "How could he sit amongst them ... and yet carry in his mind those the horrible burden of those dark terrors and suspicions that were with him day and night? He could not do it! He had shrunk from these men as if he had, indeed, been a detective police officer, stained with vile associations, and unfit company for honest gentlemen." Vol III, Chapter 7)

Braddon's first trick is to turn the whole question on its head: detective work, instead of making Robert morally suspect, makes him morally sound: "The one purpose which had slowly grown up in his careless nature until it had become powerful enough to work a change in that very nature, made him what he had never been before - a Christian; conscious of his own weakness; anxious to keep to the strict line of duty; fearful to swerve from the conscientious discharge of the strange task that had been forced upon him; and reliant on a stronger hand than his own to point the way which he was to go." (Vol II, Chapter 1). Detection is now a Christian duty, dictated by fate and directed by God. From now on destiny compels him (Vol II, Chapter 2). He is helpless and not in control of his own actions. "Why do I go on with this? ... how pitiless I am, and how relentlessly I am carried on. It is not myself; it is the hand which is beckoning me further and further upon the dark road whose end I dare not dream of." (Vol II, Chapter 3) Robert even sees his task as a punishment from God for his frivolous life: "surely this must be God's judgment upon the purposeless, vacillating life I led up to the seventh day of last September." (Vol III, Chapter 4).

God's hand or the hand of destiny, however, is not enough to keep Robert going after all. He decides to let George's family determine whether he should continue his investigation. Robert gives "a minutely-detailed account of all that has happened" (Vol II, Chapter 4) to George's estranged father Harcourt Talboys. Harcourt refuses to provide Robert with a legitimate motive to detect: "If you go on, you go on for your own satisfaction." (Vol II, Chapter 4). Robert leaves the Talboys' home with a sense of "an unutterable relief." "The crisis is past and I am free!" He is released from his despicable role as a detective: "His generous nature revolted at the office into which it had found himself drawn - the office of a spy, the collector of damning facts that led on to horrible deductions." (Vol II, Chapter 4).

If Robert hangs up his deer-stalker, we will never find out Lady Audley's secret. Fortunately, the handsome and smart Clara Talboys, the sister who so reminds Robert of his lost friend, runs after him. Clara injects a whole new level of passion into the investigation: "I shall go mad unless I can do something - something towards avenging his death." This lady is serious: "Choose between the two alternatives, Mr Audley. Shall you or I find my brother's murderer?" (Vol II, Chapter 5)

Clara Talboys finally clears all doubt from Robert's mind and the resolution to his crisis of motivation comes in a nice moment of textual self-awareness: "He was on the spot at which all record of his friend's life ended as suddenly as a story ends when the reader shuts the book. And could he withdraw now from the investigation in which he found himself involved? Could he stop now? For any consideration? No; a thousand times no! Not with the image of that grief-stricken face imprinted on his mind. Not with the accents of hat earnest appeal ringing on his ear." (Vol II, Chapter 7)

Clara's role as Robert's motivator is left intriguingly ambiguous. Robert's reaction seems at first glance romantic: he will do battle for Clara and protect her from soiling her own delicate hands in detective work. However, Clara's vehemence and self-assurance are so convincing that she appears as a capable adversary to Lady Audley. Robert Audley will be her tool and her weapon.

Now that he has a strong, insistent woman behind him spurring him on, Robert can crack on with the detective work and all qualms about the moral justification of his investigation are removed. He is fully motivated.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Normal Detective of a Sensation Novel

After his friend George Talboys vanishes into thin air, Robert Audley turns into an amateur detective. He travels first to Southampton to interview Captain Maldon, where he picks up a half-burnt telegram and puts it in his pocket (Vol I, chapter 12). Then he journeys to Liverpool to inquire about passenger lists for ships to Australia (Vol I, chapter 13). He demonstrates the use of "inductive evidence" (Vol I, chapter 16). He writes down the known facts in bullet points (Vol I, chapter 13). He gives Lady Audley a lecture on the "theory of circumstantial evidence":

"that wonderful fabric which is built of straws collected at every point of the compass, and which is yet strong enough to hang a man. Upon which infinitesimal trifles may sometimes hang the whole secret of some wicked mystery, inexplicable heretofore to the wisest upon the earth! A scrap of paper; a shred of some torn garment; the button off a coat; a word dropped incautiously from the over-cautious lips of guilt; the fragment of a letter; the shutting or opening of a door; a shadow on a window-blind; the accuracy of a moment; a thousand circumstances so slight as to be forgotten by the criminal, but links of steel in the wonderful chain forged by the science of the detective officer; and lo! the gallows is built up; the solemn bell tolls through the dismal grey of the early morning; the drop creaks under the guilty feet; and the penalty of crime is paid." (Vol I, chapter 15).

No wonder Lady Audley feels a little poorly after hearing this. Later she tells Robert Audley: "you ought to have been a detective police officer." Robert Audley replies: "I should have been a good one. ... Because I am patient." (Vol I, chapter 18)

In December 1861 Lady Audley's Secret had been started and partly published. It had been serialized in Robin Goodfellow from July till September. It would be continued in Sixpenny Magazine from January to December 1862. Just before the publication of the novel was continued, on 28 December 1861, Spectator published an article entitled "The Enigma Novel" which stated: "We are threatened with a new variety of sensation novel, a host of cleverly complicated stories, the whole interest of which consists of the gradual unveiling of some carefully prepared enigma."

This is a pretty good definition of a detective story. Detection is finding out; OED defines it as "exposure, revelation of what is concealed" and "as the finding out what tends to elude notice." My view is that a detective story is a story which has detection, as defined by the OED as a major theme or interest in the narrative. And a detective is a character who engages in detection. The detective does not have to be successful to be a detective, but she or he has to put in the effort to detect.

The term 'detective story' was first used in print to describe a novel (as far as I have been able to determine) by Anna Katharine Green as a subtitle to her 7 to 12 and X. Y. Z. in 1883. Some critics maintain it was used in Green's first novel The Leavenworth Case published in 1878, but that is not the case. By the 1880s, the concept of detective fiction was quite established, and what was meant by the term 'detective story' was pretty much what we mean by it today. In December 1886, a year before the first Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Saturday Review published an article entitled "Detective Fiction" about the growing popularity of "the detective novel." This shows that by now detective fiction was a recognized genre.

Detectives and detection were already familiar concepts to readers of sensation fiction. "Amateur Detectives" in Saturday Review in February 1868 (at a time when two installments of Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, the celebrated "first" English detective novel, had appeared in All the Year Round) criticized the deductive method "generally accepted in constructing the well-known detective in fiction." The article further claims that it is "absurd" to think that "given any fragment of the universe ... a person of sufficient knowledge and ability might construct the rest." Two decades later in 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would make Sherlock Holmes think exactly this in A Study in Scarlet.

In June 1863, six months after Lady Audley's Secret  completed its serialization, "Detective in Fiction and in Real Life" in Saturday Review said that "Of all forms of sensation-novel writing, none is so common as what may be called the romance of the detective." and talks about "the normal detective of a sensation novel."

There is reason to think that what started all this excitement about detective fiction was Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White which appeared in 1860, a year before Lady Audley's Secret. The quote above from "The Enigma Novel" continues: "Mr. Wilkie Collins set the fashion, and now every novel writer who can construct a plot, thinks if he only makes it a little more mysterious and unnatural, he may obtain a success rivaling that of "The Woman in White."

M. E. Braddon certainly had a go at that.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Coincidences, Near Misses and Disappointments

The plot of Lady Audley's Secret is set in motion in chapter four of Volume I when two coincidences happen. First, Robert Audley and George Talboys bump into each other. Secondly, George happens to pick up yesterday's "greasy" copy of The Times "from a heap of journals on the table" in a coffee shop and see a death notice for Mrs Helen Talboys (Vol I, chapter 4).

George Talboys faints:
"The hot August sunshine; the dusty widow panes and shabby painted blinds; a file of fly-brown play-bills fastened to the wall; the blank and empty fire-place; the bald-headed old man nodding over the Morning Advertiser; the slipshod waiter folding a tumbled table-cloth, and Robert Audley's handsome face looking at him full of compassionate alarm. He knew that all these things took on gigantic proportions, and then, one by one, melted into dark blots that swam before his eyes. He knew that there was a great noise as of half a dozen furious steam-engines tearing and grinding in his ears, and he knew nothing more, except that somebody or something fell heavily to the ground." (Vol I, chapter 5)

In a novel where every detail is pregnant with possible significance and dripping with sensational potential, the details of the coffee house seen through George Talboys' eyes come across as a nugget of realism in a highly romanticized and stylized narrative. It is also interesting that we get to experience the sensations of fainting with George Talboys in such detail. Later, when it is Lady Audley's turn to faint, we observe it from a distance (Vol I, chapter 15). Perhaps there is something particularly potent about the sturdy, manly George Talboys swooning, or the detail is included just to make the scene more dramatic. This moment brings a radical and lasting change in the character of George Talboys. From now in he is described in terms of a child: "The big dragoon was as helpless as a baby" (Vol I, Chapter 5), he was "as submissive as a child" (Vol I, Chapter 7). This is significant, because removing George Talboys as the dashing hero returning with a fortune from the colonies and reducing him into a helpless, tragic figure, prepares the way for Robert Audley to take a more prominent role in the novel.

The death notice in the paper is also the first significant twist in the plot. We have been led to think that Helen Talboys and Lucy, Lady Audley are the same person. Now we learn that Helen Talboys is dead. Do we believe what we read in The Times or do we trust the heavy hints given in the narrative? The matter must be investigated. And luckily, that is exactly what the two heroes do next.

In Ventnor, on the Isle of Wight, the landlady tells George of Helen's final hours in a scene full of pathos and melancholy. "Many of her lodgers came to her to die" (Vol I, chapter 5) and we were supposed to  understand that she had died of an illness like TB as soon as we learned where she died. George gets to pray at Helen's death bed and kiss her pillow tenderly while the landlady stands by crying. We also meet Helen's father Captain Maldon and the Talboys' little boy Georgey. It all seems perfectly clear: Helen is dead and buried and Lady Audley cannot be Helen Talboys, if only we could ignore the couple of discordant details which suggest that something is fishy in this sea-side resort.

The death of Helen Talboys is also the first near miss in the narrative, where by a whisker we miss finding out the truth. She died "within a week of" George Talboys' touching land (Vol I, chapter 6). As readers have been led to suspect that there is something odd about Helen Talboys' conveniently timed death, we are happy that the men next travel to Audley. They may be going fishing, but the reader is after something else: finding out once and for all if Lady Audley is Helen Talboys. Through a series of further near misses the narrative keeps reeling us along on its hook. George never catches sight of Lady Audley. This is blatantly and unashamedly contrived by the narrative. There is even a moment when Alicia hands a letter by Lady Audley to Robert, who admires Lady Audley's hand writing, while George Talboys stands nearby without showing any interest. If only George would get a good look at Lady Audley or even her hand writing, the truth would surely be revealed. Despite the elaborate near misses, the reader keeps reading, the narrative at this point is a comedy of errors, we know we are being teased.

One evening a storm is brooding over Audley Court. The weather creates an expectation of something dramatic about to happen. While the storm clouds gather, Alicia shows George Talboys and Robert Audley a secret passage to Lady Audley's chambers. The lady herself has escaped to London on a sudden errand and has locked up her rooms which have the best paintings in the house on their walls. Like adventurers penetrating an exotic cave, carrying a candle the two men enter this treasure trove of intoxicating, feminine scents and soft, velvety surfaces. There among other treasures, like the picture of Dorian Gray (a story only published thirty years after Lady Audley's Secret), is a pre-Raphaelite portrait of Lady Audley. Pre-Raphaelites were considered quite avant garde, daring and disturbing. The narrative suggests that this portrait may be telling the private truth about Lady Audley, unlike her simpering, golden-haloed, public face. Alternatively the effect of the painting is just a result of pre-Raphaelite affectation. Wearing a red dress which makes her appear like a Phoenix rising from the flames (an apt image), there is "something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend" in her portrait (Vol I, chapter 8). Now, we cannot wait for the moment when George Talboys sees this painting of the woman, we still suspect, who is actually the wife he thinks dead:

"But strange as the picture was, it could not have made any great impression on George Talboys, for he sat before it for about a quarter of an hour without uttering a word - only staring blankly at the painted canvas, with the candle stick grasped in his strong right hand, and his left arm hanging loosely by his side. He sat so long in this attitude, that Robert turned round at last.
            "Why George, I thought you had gone to sleep."
            "I had almost." (Vol I, chapter 8)

This is such a disappointment. The narrative very deliberately ignores this moment of opportunity for a sensational revelation. The men leave Lady Audley's room and Robert leads a passive George Talboys away from Audley Court just as the storm is about to break. Back at the inn, George stares out the window "white and haggard, with your great hollow eyes staring out at the sky as if they were fixed upon a ghost." (Vol I, chapter 9) Again the reader's expectations are raised. With the violent storm raging outside in the darkness of the night and George Talboys clearly shaken to the core, perhaps by Lady Audley's portrait, something momentous must be about to happen. Robert goes to his bedroom where "the lightning [was] fitfully playing round the razors in his open dressing case (Vol I, chapter 9) and wakes up to a sunny, peaceful morning to have breakfast with George Talboys. Disappointment again. Everyone seems cheerful all of a sudden. Lady Audley prattles on merrily at Audley Court, even after she learns about the men's visit to her rooms. She was petrified with fear during the storm, but now she is "restless from very joyousness of spirit." (Vol I, chapter 9) The two men laze by the river with their fishing rods. Robert Audley falls asleep and George Talboys goes for a walk ... to Audley Court ... and disappears. He is last heard mumbling something about "wishing to see my lady" and head off towards the Lime Walk where Lady Audley is thought to be. After a while Lady Audley returns from her walk from quite the opposite direction. She says that she never came across George Talboys.