Thursday, 15 August 2013

"A Fair Scene of Country Life"

Verner's Pride opens with a description of the eponymous house and its surroundings (very much like Lady Audley's Secret opens with a description of Audley Court). The opening paragraphs go on to give us a detailed explanation of its ownership: "The house, the ornamental grounds, the estate around, all belonged to Mr Verner. It had come to him by bequest, not by entailed inheritance. Busybodies were fond of saying that it never ought to have been his; that, if the strict law of right and justice had been observed, it would have gone to his elder brother; or, rather, to that elder brother's son." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 1).

Inheritance and the ownership of Verner's Pride are established as central themes for the novel from the start. Almost all characters in the novel depend upon Verner's Pride for their living. The Verner family depend upon in directly: Mrs Verner has two grown-up sons from her first marriage, John and Frederick Massingbird. The "elder brother's son" Lionel Verner will of course not come to his inheritance without encountering major obstacles. Lionel's mother, Lady Verner (Mr Verner's elder brother's widow) and Lionel's sister Decima depend on Lionel for their customary comforts. Also the estate workers and, indirectly, other inhabitants of the village of Deerham are sustained by the Verner estate.

"And that is the introduction," the narrator tells us, "And now we must go back to the golden light of that spring evening." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 1) Mrs Henry Wood is not averse to letting her narrator address the reader directly. There are several occasions when this happens and the narrator even comments on the technicalities of story-telling ("You cannot tell two portions of a history at one and the same time." [Verner's Pride, Chapter 52]) After the scene is set for the story, the narrative follows Rachel Frost:

"A very beautiful girl. Her features were delicate, her complexion was fair as alabaster, and a bright colour mantled in her cheeks. But for the modest cap upon her head, a stranger might have been puzzled to guess at her condition in life. She looked gentle and refined as any lady, and her manners and speech would not have destroyed that illusion." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 1)

Rachel's family lives in the nearby village of Deerham. The Verners had taken an interest in Rachel when she was a child, and now she works as Mrs Verner's maid. "They were sufficiently wise not to lift the girl palpably out of her proper sphere; but they paid for a decent education for her at a day-school, and were personally kind to her." Rachel is described as an ideal heroine:  "Modest, affectionate, generous, everybody liked Rachel." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 2)

Throughout the narrative of Verner's Pride the character of Rachel Frost connects all the levels of the local society from the farm labourers to the master of the big house. Rachel is an agricultural labourer's daughter, but brought up to behave like a lady. Rachel is shown to be on friendly terms with the wealthy inhabitants of Verner's Pride. She makes frequent visits to her working class family in Deerham. (Verner's Pride, Chapter 2). On the social scale Rachel occupies a somewhat ambiguous middle ground. She moves effortlessly through the layers of the local community. She is not only familiar with everyone; she is of interest and concern to everyone. Rachel resembles heroines in traditional melodramas: a good, beautiful, lower-class woman with some of the accomplishments of women above her station in life. 

As Rachel is on her way out, Lionel Verner arrives:

"Riding up swiftly to the door, as Rachel appeared at it, was a gentleman of some five or six and twenty years. Horse and man both looked thoroughbred. Tall, strong and slender, with a keen, dark blue eye, and regular features of a clear, healthy paleness, he - the man - would draw a second glance to himself wherever he might be met."

At the end of Chapter 2, we have a beautiful heroine who is not a lady but can pass herself as one, and a handsome hero, with great expectations. So far so good. But then the narrative springs a surprise:

"Scarcely an hour later, a strange commotion arose in the village. People ran about wildly, whispering dread words to one another. A woma nhad just been drowned in the Willow Pond. ... Rachel Frost - cold, and white, and DEAD!" (Verner's Pride, Chapter 2).

Our beautiful heroine is dead, possibly murdered. How is that for a sensational opening?

For the next six chapters Verner's Pride turns into a murder mystery. Mr Verner interrogates all the witnesses in his study. A tall gentleman seen in a country lane becomes the prime suspect. This could only have been one of the three young gentlemen belonging to Verner's Pride: Lionel Verner, John Massignbird or Frederick Massingibrd. All three assure Mr Verner that they are innocent. One additional revelation is made at the official inquest, as the narrative delicately puts it: "there was a cause for Rachel Frost's unevenness of spirits ... She might possibly, they now thought, have thrown herself into the pool; induced to it by self-condemnation." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 7). This news "electrified" everybody. "It could not be. But the medical men ... calmly said that it was." (Ibid.).  In this very roundabout away we learn the shocking news that Rachel was pregnant. "This supplied the very motive" for her murder. (Ibid.)

Mr Verner feels ill: "An angry, feverish desire to find out who had played the traitor grew strong in him." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 8). Rachel's brother Robin swears to find the man who caused her death. (Ibid.). The narrative has shifted our expectations from a romance to a story of mystery and detection. Our beautiful, virtuous heroine is revealed to be a betrayed, fallen woman.

The narrator's voice comes in again: "The former chapter may be looked upon somewhat in the light of an introduction to what is to follow. ... We must take a leap of not far short of two yeas from the date of their occurrence." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 9).

Verner's Pride is not a murder mystery. There are no detectives in it. The plot is nothing as linear as a crime followed by its detection and the capture of the culprit. Rachel's death is the first mystery in the novel. The second mystery is the lost codicil of Mr Verner's will (Verner's Pride, Chapter 17), and the third mystery is the identity of the ghost haunting Deerham. All of these mysteries are resolved in the end, but none are actively pursued by any of the characters for any length of time. They provide an undercurrent of tension in the narrative, a frisson created by unanswered questions. These three mysteries are critical in shaping the events in the novel. It is quite interesting how Mrs Henry Wood uses them to give her narrative momentum without using detection as the driving force.

The way Verner's Pride utilizes its mysteries as a source of suspense may be seen as a shortcoming on Mrs Henry Wood's part - she was no Wilkie Collins or Charles Dickens who were quite consciously using detection as a great source of tension in their novels. The workings of fate and destiny were fundamentally important in Victorian melodrama, and one way of understanding the use of mysteries and their resolution in Verner's Pride is to see the influence of melodrama: crimes and secrets will be exposed without active detective work, because murder will out, and evil will have its comeuppance in an ordered, moral world.  

Equally, Mrs Henry Wood's narrative skill in Verner's Pride may be admired just for the reason that the narrative is not allowed to degenerate into a sensational detective story. The mysteries of Rachel's death, the lost codicil and the ghost are treated with the level-headedness they deserve in a respectable novel. In their cool handling, Verner's Pride perhaps aims to show that it is better than your average, trashy, sensation novel.

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