Thursday, 18 July 2013
A Narrative Contraption
It is generally maintained that the intention of The New Magdalen was to win sympathy for the fallen woman and argue that not all women considered sinful and lost deserve the opprobrium meted out to them by the respectable society. If this is what Collins hoped to achieve, The New Magdalen is not very successful. Collins has broken the cardinal rule of fiction 'show not tell.' Mercy Merrick's backstory - her years of sin - are glossed over in a couple of explanatory scenes where Mercy tells her story - first guardedly to Grace Roseberry (The New Magdalen, Chapter 2), and, towards the end, to Julian Grey and Horace Holmcroft (The New Magdalen, Chapter 27). At no stage of the narrative do we learn any details of Mercy's past degradation. This shameful past is a stated fact and does not provide any dramatic revelations in the plot. There are only continuing and increasingly tedious statements by Mercy that she has lost her virtue for ever.
Mercy Merrick has internalized her own immorality and unworthiness, and it is her feeling of shame that provides the proof of her fallen state. This, we can argue, is of course also the necessary proof of her innate morality and goodness. Only good people can feel such intensity of guilt. But it makes boring reading. Mercy can keep wringing her hands and bang on about her own shame until the cows come home, we would much rather read of the events that caused that shame in the first place. The New Magdalen is reluctant to be specific and is far from explicit as far the fall of woman is concerned.
Even if The New Magdalen does not quite engage the reader's sympathies in the manner possibly intended by Collins, it does demonstrate his masterful skill as an author who can hook his reader and keep her reading. The narrative sequences and individual scenes are dovetailed and designed very meticulously to try to ensure that the reader remains in a constant state of anticipation and mild excitement - this is the aim of any sensation novel. It is also a requirement of serial fiction: to make the reader desperate to know what happens next. It is quite astonishing how The New Magdalen can keep the reader's interest despite being so very contrived. It manages to stretch our suspension of disbelief to the very edge of snapping.
As Catherine Peters observes in The King of Inventors (1991), "The narrative leans heavily on the reader, never presenting alternative points of view." (Peters (1991), p338). There is no mystery for the reader to solve; the heroine's secret is out in the open. The tension that is created by the other characters not knowing the truth about Mercy Merrick is not sufficient, argues Peters: "there is no suspense and no mystery (Ibid.). I agree: the suspense in the novel does not come from the other characters slowly unmasking Mercy as an impostor. This was never intended to be a detective story. The suspense, it would appear, is expected to come from Mercy's inner struggle to confess her crime and the obstacles that the plot incidents and the conditions of the respectable society throw in her way. This is not really achieved in the narrative. Instead, the suspense comes almost entirely from the reader's cat-and-mouse game with the author: waiting in a state of amused excitement to see what kind of a melodramatic trick the author can think of next to stop Mercy's secret from being revealed. This is where Collins comes up with some surprises and red herrings.
From the moment the German doctor revives the real Grace Roseberry at the end of Scene 1 (The New Magdalen, Chapter 5), the game is on. When Julian Grey informs Lady Janet that he wishes to introduce a lady he has taken an interest in, Lady Janet may suspect Julian has finally decided to marry, but the reader conversed in conventions of melodrama can be in no doubt that this mysterious lady will turn out to be the real Grace. This is more or less immediately confirmed with heavy-handed foreshadowing when Mercy is introduced to Julian as 'Grace:'
"The instant she pronounced the name, Julian started as if it was a surprise to him. ...A complete change had come over him; and it dated from the moment when his aunt has pronounced the name that was not her name - the name she had stolen!" (The New Magdalen, Chapter 8.)
The reader is led to anticipate that the plot will consist of the slow reveal of Mercy's deception - Grace will appear at some stage. The very next chapter confirms that with a "vindictive look" the recovering Grace Roseberry has asked the authorities to "Find Mercy Merrick!" (The New Magdalen, Chapter 9). The narrative has shifted our expectations to anticipate Grace's developing battle to win back her name and expose Mercy.
However, only a few pages later Grace Roseberry arrives at Maplethorpe House and confronts Lady Janet. Mercy Merrick walks into the room; sees the real Grace and drops "senseless on the floor." (The New Magdalen, Chapter 11). This is the first of quite brilliant plot twists. Surely, this is the end of the road for Mercy. How is it possible that the deception can go on? It does.
Grace Roseberry sneaks into Maplethorpe House. When she discovers Mercy alone, she approaches with her "eyes brightened with vindictive pleasure." We believe that Mercy has been saved by a whisker, when men's voices make Grace withdraw behind the billiard-room door at the end of Chapter 15. In Chapter 16, Mercy decides to do a deal with Grace and "was now eager to devise a means of finding her way privately to an interview with Grace." (The New Magdalen, Chapter 16). Unfortunately, Grace escapes from the house unseen and Julian and Mercy just catch a glimpse of the closing billiard-room door. The plot twists on tortuously to prolong Mercy's moral agony.
When Grace Roseberry is threatened with madness, Mercy Merrick's conscience forces her towards a confession. But she cannot bring herself to utter the words. Instead she decides to confess in a letter. (The New Magdalen, Chapter 20). After trying her best, for the length of a chapter, to get the words on the paper she suddenly realizes that writing is wrong, her fiance Horace has a right to hear the truth from her: "Cost her what it might to avow the truth to him with her own lips, the cruel sacrifice must be made." (The New Magdalen, Chapter 21). This is another example how the narrative turns, with people entering and exiting, changing their minds and having minor emotional break-downs, always postponing the anticipated moment of truth. There is even a moment where the arrival of unseen visitors at the gates of Maplethorpe House conveniently (to the plot) makes it difficult for Lady Janet to keep Julian and Mercy from meeting in the library: "Would there be time enough to get rid of the visitors, and to establish her adopted daughter in the empty drawing room, before Julian appeared?" (The New Magdalen, Chapter 15). It would be spoiling the plot to reveal whether she succeeded.
The narrative contrives to prolong the suspense by a series of these slightly comical stratagems. It is not successful; it does not grip in the sense of transporting the reader to the world of its characters. But the narrative is not tedious or boring either: it grips in the same way we are amused, even fascinated by the intricate operations of a clever contraption. The New Magdalen fails in its didactic mission, and it fails as a sensation novel. It succeeds as a delicately manufactured machine of melodrama.