Thursday, 11 July 2013

"You Are as False as Hell!"

The second scene of The New Magdalen takes place in Lady Janet's Maplethorpe House where Mercy Merrick is now installed as a companion as 'Grace Roseberry'. Because Mercy's impersonation of Grace is the one single plot line in this tightly constructed novel, Collins has two challenges: he has to manage our sympathies and he has to keep us in suspense. Mercy must be in constant danger of being revealed as a fake and readers must be sufficiently emotionally engaged in the story to care about her or about the victims of her deception. These sources of narrative tension must be stretched across the whole length of the novel.

Mercy's 'goodness' is established from the start. After four months of living in the luxury of Maplethorpe House, she "pines under the slow torment of constant self-reproach." She "sits in the grim shadow of her own terrible secret." (The New Magdalen, Chapter 6). When Lady Janet expresses her pleasure of having 'Grace' (as she of course calls Mercy) with her, Mercy

"was seized with a sudden horror of her own successful fraud. The sense of her degradation had never been so bitterly present to her as at that moment. If she could only confess the truth - if she could innocently enjoy her harmless life at Maplethorpe House - what a grateful happy woman she could be!" (The New Magdalen, Chapter 7).

In thick, melodramatic strokes Mercy is painted as a tragic heroine in a terrible moral dilemma. She is appreciated, loved and admired. Horace Holmcroft has asked her to marry him. She has accepted him, but refuses to name the wedding date. Instead of enjoying all this comfort and financial safety offered to her, Mercy agonizes and suffers, she wages a constant battle with her dark, hidden secret of assumed identity. It is clear that much of the tension in the narrative is not going to come from others' attempts to detect Mercy's fraud, but from her own internal struggle with her conscience. Will she crack under pressure and 'fess up?

This approach centering on Mercy's internal struggles is essential if Collins wants to present Mercy as a sympathetic character and win the reader to her side. It is important for the narrative (you may call it Wilkie Collins's 'mission' here) to show Mercy Merrick as an inherently good woman despite her somewhat sordid past. It also gives a potentially interesting angle to the whole story: Although it is not his main focus in this plot-driven novel, Collins is depicting the effects of an immoral act on the mind of the main character. If we really go out on a limb, we might even suggest that with Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866), The New Magdalen is an early novel about the psychology of crime. Instead of a detective novel, this is what Peter Messent calls in The Crime Fiction Handbook (2013) "a transgressor narrative."

The events in the novel are presented as trials and tribulations for Mercy. Each step that brings closer her ultimate revelation as a fraud is a test for her. The first comes with the arrival of Julian Gray, Lady Roy's nephew, a preacher "immensely popular with women." (The New Magdalen, Chapter 7). Back in the women's refuge, a sermon by Julian made a strong impression on Mercy and she says that "From that time I have accepted my hard lot." (The New Magdalen, Chapter 2). Now just hearing that Julian's arrival is imminent Mercy is so confused that she agrees to marry Horace in a fortnight. "She was trembling from head to foot. ... There was a daze sensation in her; her mind felt stunned. She wondered vacantly whether she was awake or dreaming." She imagined Julian Grey in the room, listening to her and Horace. "Something in her shuddered and shrank at the bare idea of finding herself in the same room with him. ... She found herself crying silently without knowing why. A weight was on her head, a weariness was in all her limbs." (The New Magdalen, Chapter 7). And when he finally arrives, his effect on Mercy is equally cataclysmic: his voice "instantly set her trembling in every limb. She started up, and listened in breathless terror. ... She recovered herself sufficiently to hurry to the library door. Her hand shook so that she failed at first to open it." (The New Magdalen, Chapter 8). 

("Lady Janet! Lady Janet! don't leave me without a word!" by Charles S. Reinhart [?]. 1889. From Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham)

Mercy's body trembles, pants and convulses her way through the narrative. Each moment of tension is accompanied by physical symptoms. The internal battle in her conscience is reflected in her bodily sensations. She faints (The New Magdalen, Chapter 12), becomes ill with nervous tension (The New Magdalen, Chapter 13). Later, in climactic scene suffocatingly thick with melodrama, Mercy contemplates suicide (The New Magdalen, Chapter 21). Her senses become obscured and unreliable making the world reflect her state of mind. Her body, it seems, is no longer under her control:

"Little by little she felt the enervating influences let loose on her, in her lonely position, by her new train of thought. Little by little, her heart began to sink under the stealthy chill of superstitious dread. Vaguely horrible presentiments throbbed in her with her pulses, flowed through with her blood. Mystic oppressions of hidden disaster hovered over her in the atmosphere of the room. The cheerful candlelight turned traitor to her and grew dim. Supernatural murmurs trembled round the house in the moaning of the winter wind. She was afraid to look behind her. On a sudden, she felt her own cold hands covering her face, without knowing when she had lifted them to it, or why." (The New Magdalen, Chapter 21).

As the story progresses Mercy's nervousness spreads to other characters. They too, begin to have odd feelings. When the real Grace Roseberry walks into the room, Julian, Horace and Lady Janet have their sympathies frozen, they feel a sudden petrifying embarrassment; they feel repelled (The New Magdalen, Chapter 11). Grace Roseberry's sanity is questioned, it is assumed she is trying to usurp Mercy's place and Mercy is the genuine Grace. (The New Magdalen, Chapter 20). As an aside, The New Magdalen has an excellent cameo appearance by a police-officer at the moment when Grace Roseberry is almost bundled off to a lunatic asylum:

"A man appeared in the open doorway.
He was not a gentleman; he was not a workman; he was not a servant. He was vilely dressed, in glossy black broadcloth. His frockcoat hung on him instead of fitting him. His waistcoat was too short and too tight over the chest. His trousers were a pair of shapeless black bags. His gloves were too large for him. His highly-polished boots creaked detestably whenever he moved. He had odiously watchful eyes - eyes that looked skilled in peeping through keyholes. His large ears, set forward like he ears of a monkey, pleaded guilty to meanly listening behind other people's doors. His manner was quietly confidential, when he spoke: inpenetrably self-possessed when he was silent. A lurking air of secret-service enveloped the fellow, like an atmosphere of his own, from head to foot. He looked all around the magnificent room, without betraying either surprise or admiration. He closely investigated every person in it with one glance of his cunningly-watchful eyes. Making his bow to Lady Janet, he silently showed her, as his introduction, the card that had summoned him. And then se stood at ease, self-revealed in his own sinister identity - a police-officer in plain clothes.
Nobody spoke to him. Everybody shrank inwardly, as if a reptile had crawled into the room." (The New Magdalen, Chapter 20).

This is a nice twist on the Victorian convention of declaring difficult and/or criminal middle-class women as mad. Grace haunts Maplethorpe House eavesdropping on others. In a brilliantly vehement scene she lets Mercy have it in a verbal tirade (The New Magdalen, Chapter 19), she shakes "her clenched hand with hysterical frenzy" calling for Justice! in front of Lady Janet (The New Magdalen, Chapter 11). But she is Mercy's victim. It would be monstrous for the narrative to allow her to be locked up. We are skirting very close to a truly terrifying scandal here. Mercy is a little slow on the uptake, but eventually she realizes that unless she confesses to her fraud, she will be responsible for the real Grace Roseberry being locked up as a mad woman. (The New Magdalen, Chapter 20). This is another one of her trials.

Horace Holmcroft, conservative and traditional English gentleman with a somewhat narrow mind, great fondness for gambling and respect for his mother and sisters, is the last person to realize what is going on - that Mercy Merrick is not who she says she is. When he finally catches on, he doubts his own sanity:

"My temper has been a good deal tried in this house; I have never been used to the sort of thing that goes on here - secrets and mysteries, and hateful, low-lived quarrels. We have no secrets and mysteries at home. ... I am not harassed at home by doubts of who people are, and confusion about names, and so on. I suspect the contrast weighs a little on my mind, and upsets it. They make me over-suspicious among them here - and it ends in my feeling doubts and fears that I can't get over; doubts about you, and fears about myself. I have got a fear about myself now. .... Does it strike you that I am at all wrong in my mind?" (The New Magdalen, Chapter 26). 

The reader, who hopefully has an equally harmonious home lacking in mysteries and secrets as Horace, has perhaps had her "nerves a little shaken" (Ibid.) just like him. However, hoping that the effects of the narrative on the reader were as strong as the effect of the same events on Horace is too optimistic. The abundance of emotions adds sensational colour to the narrative, but Collins is over-egging the pudding here, even for Victorian tastes. There is only so much wringing of hands we can take without either giggling or abandoning the novel altogether. The descriptions of the inner agonies and battles of the heroine fail to engage the sympathies of the reader. Collins is not Gustave Flaubert. Collins lacks economy and piles on the emotion and sensation so thickly that the reader is hardly left air to breathe. The portrait of Mercy Merrick as a good woman tragically fallen into a path of deception is not convincing. She should either enjoy what she has obtained by fraud and defend her position (and be a wicked Victorian beauty), or she should confess and move on (put the reader out of her misery). As a reader you no longer care, you just want it to end. But it does not, it just goes on and on. Despite teetering on the edge of frustration you keep reading, because Collins is doing something clever with his plot. He may not have won your sympathies for his somewhat shallow characters, but he does have you hooked by the narrative.

No comments:

Post a Comment