Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Tart with a Heart: Mercy Merrick

The New Magdalen opens with a very masculine setting far removed from society and convention: it is night-time in a French cottage on the frontier of a Franco-German war in 1870. The French have taken possession of the village, but a German counter-offensive is expected. Captain Arnault is reading despatches "by the light of a solitary tallow candle." In the kitchen of the cottage wounded soldiers lie on straw beds "under the care of a French surgeon and the English nurse attached to the ambulance." The surgeon comes in and requests that 'the English lady' might use the room while the Captain goes out, and the English nurse might keep her company. But under no circumstances must the women open the shutters of the single window and betray their position to the Germans. The surgeon calls into the kitchen to invite the women in, and we get the first view of our heroine:

"The nurse led the way - tall, lithe, and graceful - ...Pale and sad, her expression and her manner both eloquently suggestive of suppressed suffering and sorrow, there was an innate nobility in the carriage of the woman's head, an innate grandeur in the gaze of her large, grey eyes, and in the lines of her finely-proportioned face, which made her irresistibly striking and beautiful ..." (The New Magdalen, Chapter 1).

The second woman is "unusually pretty," "darker in complexion and smaller in stature." (Ibid.). She is timid and hesitant, "suffering from fatigue." While by no means unattractive, the English lady is very much left in the shadow of the magnificent nurse. Grace Roseberry introduces herself and asks for the nurse's name. She replies "Call me 'Mercy Merrick'" and the narrator rushes to question: "Had she given an assumed name? Was there some unhappy celebrity attached to her own name?" (The New Magdalen, Chapter 1). It is clear that Mercy is a woman with a past, but it is also worth noting that 'Mercy Merrick' is probably not her real name. She is already impersonating someone else.

Grace is on her way to England from Italy. Her mother died while they were living in Canada. Now, after her father's death, she has been left alone in the world and without means. Lady Janet Roy, a connection of his father's through marriage, "has consented to receive [Grace] as a companion and a reader." Since Grace's "education has been neglected" she cannot even become a governess: "I am absolutely dependent on this stranger who receives me for my father's sake."

After telling her own story, Grace presses Mercy to tell hers. Mercy becomes reluctant, defensive and very mysterious: "We never can be friends." "Don't tempt me to speak out ... you will regret it."  But of course she does speak out.

Mercy introduces the topic of prostitutes gently and in a round-about way: "have you ever read of your unhappy fellow-creatures (the starving outcasts of the population) whom Want has betrayed to Sin? ... Have you heard - when those starving and sinning fellow-creatures happen to be women - of Refuges established to protect and reclaim them?" When Grace nervously asks "What do you mean?" Mercy repeats: "Have you heard of the Refuges? Have you heard of the Women?" And then she tells Grace: "I was once one of those women." (The New Magdalen, Chapter 2)

In her biography of Collins, Catherine Peters calls Mercy Merrick one of "the soiled doves of his later fiction" (Peters, p298). The 'soiled dove' or, as Donald Thomas puts it in The Victorian Underworld (1998), "the figure of a Magdalene ripe for redemption" was popular and much debated: a woman who has fallen from 'the grace of God', lost her virtue and her innocence for no fault of her own or, at the most, because of a momentary moral lapse. William Holman Hunt's (1827-1900) famous painting The Awakening Conscience (1853) depicts one fallen woman coming to a realization about the sate of her life.

Hunt, William Holman | The Awakening Conscience (1853-1854)
(Image from

This image of the 'soiled dove' was very much a cultural construct. Prostitution existed at all levels of society from high-class courtisans to street-walkers. Some of these women were wealthy enough to keep their own private households, some boarded in brothels, others had to borrow their clothes from their bawds to attract customers. Prostitution was seldom seen as a permanent way of life. Some women used it to subsidize their meagre earnings or to help them get through a rough patch in life. Others, undoubtedly, welcomed the independence and freedom offered by this occupation. A few women may even have been promiscuous by nature and quite liked the opportunity to have lots of sex. Prostitution in Victorian times was a vague concept and covered everything from kept mistresses to married women who took lovers and met them in 'houses of assignation' kept for the purpose. For a few, prostitution even offered a channel of upward social mobility. Catherine Walters, 'Skittles' secured herself the 8th Duke of Devonshire, Kate Cook got to call herself the Countess of Euston. Working as a prostitute generally was not an obstacle to marrying at any level of society.

With the Victorian interest in the conditions of the poor in society, they also studied the state of prostitution among the poor. Edwin Chadwick's Report . . . on an Enquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842), William Acton's Prostitution, Considered in its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspect (1858) and Henry Mayhew's extensive London Labour and London Poor (1861-2) are all contemporary surveys. Prostitution was not seen as a separate vice, and it was not a crime.

Prostitution was a trade visible all over town from the fashionably promenading women accosting men in The Haymarket and Regent Street, to the brothels at the Ratcliffe Highway and the "soldiers' women" near the barracks and "sailors' women" near the docks. Every industrial town and manufacturing centre had its prostitutes. How does Mercy Merrick appear against this background?

Two things are worth considering here. First, the fallen woman with her virtue destroyed for ever and with no road back from perdition into the folds of polite and respectable society may well be a cultural construct and exist primarily in fiction and art. Secondly, The New Magdalen sold copies, but it did not cause a scandal. Collins's topic does not seem to have received many complaints, except from theatre critics. And as Peters has noted: "What might be read in private could not be acted in public, ..." (Peters, 339). It may be that today we expect the story of The New Magdalen to have been more sensational and outrageous, than it actually was at the time of its publication.

The New Magdalen may have been both behind and ahead of its time. It's publication at the beginning of the 1870s is in a juncture when attitudes towards prostitution and vice were changing significantly. In The Victorian Underworld (1998), Donald Thomas writes that the 1860s were "a decade of release from years of sombre austerity. Prostitution and flamboyant sexuality were a source of scandal but also an emblem of the new nightlife of the West End with its lamplit pleasure-gardens, assembly rooms, parks and casinos. The rebellion of a younger and more Bohemian generation of Victorians against its elders found expression in pleasures and provocation, a subversion of propriety through pornography and bawdry. .. By the 1880s, mid-century hedonism was checked." (Thomas, p7)

It is no coincidence that Crenmore Gardens in Chelsea closed in 1877 and the Argyll Rooms were closed in 1878. There were calls for banning of immoral French novels by Zola and Maupassant. The National Vigilance Association was established in 1885, Mrs Mary Jeffries, a keeper of several brothels for the well-to-do, was brought to trial the same year. The age of consent was finally raised to 16 (from 12) in 1885, after previous tries in 1881 and 1884 and a furious campaign spearheaded by the Pall Mall Gazette and W. S. Stead with his expose The Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon.
Peters has called The New Magdalen "increasingly old-fashioned at a time when feminism was entering a new and positive phase" (Peters, p340), women, she suggests, no longer had to rely on deception and concealment as their only weapons in a male dominated society. At the same time, The New Magdalen anticipates the reaction against the 'gay' 1860s and a move to the straight-laced 1880s. Despite all its possible literary shortfalls, the social context of The New Magdalen is interesting. Peters writes that "Wilkie's Magdalen belonged to the jaded Victorian tradition of the woman 'fallen' through no fault of her own." (Peters, 339). I think this is dismissing Mercy Merrick too easily. There was no single 'Victorian tradition,' covering the whole of the 19th century. Mercy appeared at a time when attitudes to prostitution were changing.

In the opening chapters of The New Magdalen, the narrative prepares the way in a somewhat laboured fashion for Mercy's crime. Grace Roseberry has never met Lady Janet, her letter of introduction to this benefactress is in a letter-case she has shown to Mercy. Grace's education has been so neglected that Mercy can take her place without causing raised eye-brows. Both women have spent time in Canada around Port Logan. When Grace Roseberry opens the fatal shutter revealing their position to the Germans, she is promptly struck down by a German mortar. With Grace lying apparently dead at her feet, the temptation is presented to Mercy Merrick: "She might be Grace Roseberry if she dared!" (The New Magdalen, Chapter 4). Mercy does not jump at the chance. Instead she agonizes over this chance to win respectability and a social position under an assumed name. In the end, her transformation into Grace Roseberry happens effortlessly, almost without thinking. Before the Germans enter the cottage, she picks up Grace's cloak to cover her own nurse's uniform. With the Germans, in comes Horace Holmcroft, a war correspondent, who can get Mercy a pass through the German lines. Horace fills in the form: "You know what German discipline is by this time. What is your name?" "Grace Roseberry," she said. The words were hardly out of her mouth before she would have given everything she possessed in the world to recall them."

The narrative has almost bent over backwards to impress upon us that Mercy Merrick is not a scheming fraudster, but a fundamentally good woman craving after respectability and simply unable to resist a temptation. As Mercy travels away with ever more distant calls of "Pass the English Lady" at German checkpoints, Doctor Wetzel brings Grace Roseberry back to life. The only indication of her identity is a handkerchief with the name 'Mercy Merrick' embroidered on it (The New Magdalen, Chapter 5). The story of The New Magdalen has been primed for sensation.

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