Friday, 23 August 2013

"The Waiting for Time and Chance" (Plot Spoiler Alert!)

The most important measures of a successful sensation novel are whether it quickens our pulses through thrills and suspense and whether it keeps its audience reading in breathless anticipation. Judging by the review in Saturday Review, Verner's Pride falls short of this aim. Why is that?

According to the reviewer, the problem lies "in the often careless writing, the ill-connected episodes, the profusion of incidents out of which a good plot might have been elaborated with moderate diligence and thought…" (The Saturday Review 28/2/1863. Source: /contemporary.html)

The shortcomings of Verner's Pride seem to be in plotting. There are several sub-plots which do not contribute to the main chain of events. But I do not consider these the principle reason why Verner's Pride is not a great sensation novel. Instead, I would argue that the novel's downfall is in its failure to squeeze the maximum out of its sensational mysteries. This may be the influence of traditional melodarama, where fate plays an important role. It may be a conscious effort on the part of Mrs Henry Wood to stay away from the cheap thrills of detective fiction, which rely so very blatantly on the excitement derived from the detection of crime. Or it may simply be that Mrs Henry Wood has reached the limits of her plotting abilities. Whatever the reason, despite a very promising plot-arc, there is not enough intrigue, villainous scheming and hunting down of culprits. Verner's Pride lacks in action to be a truly satisfying sensation novel. I will try to show why I think this by walking through the plot.

Verners' inheritance is explained (1). Rachel is seen talking to Lionel (2), Fred and John (1). Rachel has a secret sorrow. (1) Rachel is found dead. (2)
Mr Verner "investigating systematically" all the witnesses (5). At the inquest it is revealed that Rachel was pregnant (7). Mr Verner has "an angry feverish desire to find out" what happened to Rachel (8). The three young gentlemen of Verner's Pride are the suspects. Mr Verner interviews all three: "were the accusation brought publicly against you, you would, none of you, be able to prove a distinct alibi." (8)

The opening chapters of Verner's Pride set up a murder mystery and introduce the question of who is the rightful heir of Verner's Pride. This is a good and exciting start to the novel.

Lady Verner, Lionel's mother, brother Jan and sister Decima are introduced (10). Lucy Tempest arrives at Deerham Court (11).
Sibylla West "loved Frederick Massingbird for himself, she liked Lionel because he was the heir." (12) John has been murdered in Australia. (12) Lionel admits he's in love with Sibylla. But Sibylla will marry Fred Massingbird and go to Australia with him. (13)

The narrative puts Rachel's fate completely aside and establishes a different plot-line. It introduces a second set of main characters. Sibylla West is depicted as a female villain. These chapters set up a very promising romantic conflict, which promises much intrigue and passion for the rest of the novel. So far, the narrative has the reader hooked.

Mr Verner has changed his will to leave the estate to Fred, not Lionel (15). Now he signs a codicil to change the will for Lionel's benefit (16). Mrs Tynn, the housekeeper, and Dr West witness it. The will is locked inside a desk (16). After Mr Verner dies, the codicil has disappeared (17).
Lady Verner: "That codicil has been stolen." Lionel: "From being a landed country gentleman ... I go to a poor fellow ..." (19) Decima suspects Dr West of taking the codicil: "Hence I drew my deductions." (21) Lionel tells her never to mention these suspicions again. (21)

Lionel has lost both his love and his fortune to Fred. There is a second mystery of the missing codicil with a clear suspect, Dr West. Instead of actively pursuing the crucial mystery of the codicil, our hero and the narrative put it aside. Lionel leaves Verner's Pride to live with his mother.

There is a riot at Peckaby's shop for bad meat which reveals Roy's mismanagement of the estate. Lionel intervenes and gets a sun-stroke. (22) He is nursed by Lucy and talks to her of Sibylla (24). Lucy falls in love with him. (23).
Lionel visits the Grinds' cottage - a "lower class dwelling." Description of rural poverty. "What a lesson for me!" says Lionel.

The main plot-line of romantic conflict is developed through Lionel's obsession with Sibylla and Lucy's developing feelings for him. We are presented with the issue of rural poverty. This is the first digression from the main plot.

A packet with Lionel's glove and a note from the late Mr Verner are found - they are somehow linked to Lionel's loss of inheritance.
Dr West desperately looks for an "important recipe" in his desk (27) and leaves for abroad "without having previously informed his daughters." (28)
Fred has died in Australia. (29) Lionel takes over Verner's Pride (30). Jan suggests that Sibylla married Fred for Verner's Pride and would now happily marry Lionel in turn (30).
Mrs Verner dies and Lionel comes to his full inheritance (32). Lionel hints at marriage to Lucy (33). Lionel plans his 'improvements' for the workers' living conditions (34).

The narrative recaptures its momentum in a succession of chapters that remind us of all the main plot lines. There are clues to the two mysteries: Rachel's death (the glove) and the missing codicil (Dr West's missing 'recipe'). There is also Jan's reminder of the villainous Sibylla. The first main plot twist gives Lionel his inheritance and makes the mystery of the codicil irrelevant. It looks like everyone is about to live their lives happily ever after. But we are only one third into the novel.

Sibylla arrives at Verner's Pride: "Oh Lionel! - you will give me a home, won't you?" (35) Lionel ask Sibylla to marry him (36) in a moment of passion. Lady Verner is upset: "Were you mad?" She asked in a whisper." "That woman has worked his ruin." (37)
Brother Jarrum preaches at Peckabys shop of the earthly paradise of Mormons.
Lionel marries Sibylla (41) "Lionel, in his heart of hearts, doubting if he did not best love Lucy Tempest." (41) Brother Jarrum disappears with his followers. Susan Peckaby is left behind but told a story of a white donkey that would fetch her. (41)

Sibylla returns and triumphs. Chapters 35 and 36 are among the high points of the plot. It is accompanied with the digressive story about Brother Jarrum and his preaching. Marriage and the position of wives are much discussed. Perhaps this is intended to form a commentary on Sibylla's life as Lionel's wife.

Sibylla spends Lionel's money. Mrs Roy, expecting to go with Brother Jarrum, confesses to the vicar that "it was Frederick Massingbird who had been quarrelling with Rachel that night by the Willow Pond." Lionel and the Reverend agree that "It can do no good to reap up the sad tale." "Let us bury Mrs Roy's story between us, and forget it, so far as we can."
Lucy and Lionel recognize their feelings for each other and their hopeless situation. "Lucy sat down as the door closed behind him and wondered how she should get through the long dreary life before her." For Lionel: "The sense of dishonour was stifling him."
Susan Peckaby waits for the white donkey (44) and the Peckabys discuss life with multiple wives (45). "Lionel had awoke to the conviction, firm and undoubted, that his wife did not love him." (45)
September 12-14 months later. About Sibylla: "Her extravagance was something frightful ..." Lionel sees financial "embarrassment" approaching fast. Alice Hook, "little more than a child," has "got herself in trouble." Cramped living conditions are blamed. Lionel compares them to Verner's Pride and "I feel as if the girl's blight lay at my own door!"

Chapter 42 is a strange turn of a plot and a disappointment: it dismisses the initial mystery that played such a major part at the beginning of the novel. Just like earlier Lionel dismissed any suspicions relating to Dr West, he now firmly puts away the new information relating to Rachel's death. The hero of the story is determined to avoid all attempts to resolve the main mysteries driving the plot.

The following three chapters develop further the romantic conflict between Sibylla, Lionel and Lucy. This theme is well established and although it provides melodramatic scenes of longing and yearning, it is becoming laboured. Chapter 46 is part of the social commentary in the novel contrasting the living conditions of Alice Hook with those of Sibylla Verner - and thereby also comparing their moral conduct. At this stage of the narrative we have lost much of the momentum; there are no unanswered burning questions, nor much foreshadowing, to help us anticipate future revelations. We are approaching midway of the novel, and the narrative is distinctly losing its pace.

Lucy spots a man lurking under a yew-tree watching Verner's Pride. Dan Duff bursts into her mother's shop, shouting "I see'd a dead man." (48) Sibylla tells Lionel: "I look upon Verner's Pride as mine, more than yours; if it had not been for the death of my husband, you would never have had it." (50) Dan Duff (51), Matthew Frost (52) and Rev Bourne (53) all say they have seen the ghost of Fred Massingbird.
A careful description of Alice Hook's dismal sleeping arrangements. (54) Sibylla and Lionel argue over a pair of grey ponies. (55) Lionel refers to the conditions of the Hooks. Sibylla hints that Lionel is to blame for Rachel. "He did not know what she meant." (55)
Lionel and Jan decide that the ghost is Fred: "I fancy it will turn out that he did not die in Australia." But "Why did he not appear openly?" (56) Lionel sees someone under the yew-tree (58): "He would have sacrificed his life willingly to save Sibylla from the terrible misfortune that appeared to be falling upon her." (58)

Just as we were losing our faith with the narrative, it treats us to the terrible threat of bigamy. This is done slowly and cumbersomely; it takes several chapters to move from the vague ghost at Willow Pond to the clear and present danger that Fred Massingbird is alive and hiding in the neighbourhood. Once this threat is established, it gives great scope for melodrama. In chapter 54, the description of Hooks' bedchamber with its potential for illicit (and incestuous) sex appears out of place, but it prepares the ground for Lionel's argument with Sibylla and her mention of Rachel. Still, it makes for a clonky read.

Lionel goes to London in search of Captain Cannonby, who knew Fred Massingbird in Australia. (59) Instead, he comes across a woman who was helped by someone called Massingbird returning from Australia. (59) Lionel goes to see Lady Verner and Lucy: "he must be a man isolated from other wedded ties, so long as Sibylla remained on the earth." (64)

In chapter 59 Lionel performs his one single act of trying to resolve the mystery so critical to his marriage and his inheritance. It also contains the only scenes in the book that take place outside of the tight rural confines of Verner's Pride and Deerham. Lionel fails in his task. The only result of his trip to London is to confirm that a man calling himself Massingbird has returned from Australia. This is a clue and comes as a result of an unlikely coincidence. As the narrator puts it almost apologetically: "Does anything in this world happen by chance? What secret unknown impulse could have sent Lionel Verner on board that steamer?" (Verner's Pride, Chapter 59). Coincidence, in a mystery plot, is a very dangerous tool to use; it seldom does its job convincingly. But it is a stock device of melodrama and fully in line with its moral universe controlled by fate.

Captain Cannonby arrives to confirm that Fred is dead. (65) Jan captures the ghost. It is John Massingbird. (66) "And so the mystery was out." John has been hiding until he knew whether the codicil had been found: "He would personate his brother ... [who] ... has neither creditors nor enemies." (67)
Lionel is in debt: "We have no furniture - no money in short, to set up a house, or to keep it on." "[Sibylla] cried, she sobbed, she protested, she stormed, she raved." They move to Deerham Court. (70)
The Deerham husbands play a nasty practical joke on Susan Peckaby with a white-washed donkey.

Coincidences pile up. The "mystery was out" without any effort by anyone. There is another turn in Lionel's fortunes: Verner's Pride is lost again as it passes to John. Chapter 74 is a digression to close the sub-plot of Susan Peckaby and the Mormons. Its placement here in the narrative may be due to the dictates of serial publishing, or it may be to serve as a parallel to Sibylla's fall to relative poverty.

Sibylla accuses Lionel directly of doing "injury to Rachel." Lionel has no idea what she means. (75)  Dr West returns and looks for the mysterious missing 'recipe.' (76) Dr West warns Sibylla of delicate health. Sibylla says "if that codicil could be found it would save my life. ... I want to go back to Verner's Pride."(77)
John asks why Mr Verner left "the place away from" Lionel. Lionel tells him of the glove and a note. (79) First Matthew Frost on his death bed (80), then John (80) tell Lionel that Fred was responsible for Rachel. (80) John says that he "learned it from Luke Roy" who saw Rachel and Fred at the pond. But Fred did not murder Rachel: "He had made vows to the girl, and broken them; and that was the extent of it." (80)
Sibylla has consumption. Fred told Sibylla that "Rachel owed her disgrace to Lionel." Lionel is shocked that Sibylla had married a man she thought was a murderer. (81)

Rachel's death is solved in passing. This resolution to the big mystery set up at the beginning of the narrative is removed with a disappointing lack of sensation. The truth was known to Rachel's family and to John Massingbird all along. Both this mystery and the second one of the codicil, which has become relevant again since John's arrival, are now linked to Sibylla's character. Her greed is revealed by her willingness to marry a man she thought had killed Rachel and by her physical health, her very existence, depending on regaining Verner's Pride.

Sibylla appears at a ball looking "like a bedecked skeleton." She insists on dancing the waltz. "That had been her last dance one earth."(86) Sibylla dies. (87)
Lionel is still unable to marry Lucy "I am in debt. Such a man cannot marry." "Oh, Lucy! Forgive - forgive me!"
Jan's medical assistant blows up his chemical experiment and as a result of the blast the missing codicil falls out of Dr West's old locked bureau. (89)
Lionel starts his improvements. John tells Lionel he handed Lionel's glove to Mr Verner: it "slipped out in self-defence" so that Mr Verner would believe John innocent and let him depart for Australia, "never thinking it could have been so important ... All could have been so different, Lionel could've been happy."
Lionel asks Col Tempest for Lucy's hand. (94)

The final chapters wrap matters up in a quick series of plot twists. Although Sibylla's dramatic and somewhat convenient death frees Lionel for Lucy, his debts do not. We need a fortunate explosion to reveal Dr West's crime, and the mystery of the codicil is cleared up. Finally, the small mystery of the glove is explained by John, and we learn the reason why Mr Verner changed his will in the first place to start the whole roller coaster ride of Lionel's fortunes.

In Chapter 57 the novel attempts to enlist our sympathies for Lionel's mental state. Here is revealed the main shortcoming of the plot:

"how could it be possible to set the question at rest?" "By a very simple process, it may be answered - the waiting for time and chance. Ay, but do you know what that waiting involves, in a case like this? Think of the state of mind that Lionel Verner must live under during the suspense!" (Verner's Pride, Chapter 57).

This describes exactly what the novel does; the unanswered questions that power the plot forward are resolved by coincidence and by characters finally deciding to tell unprompted something they have known a long time. Mysteries and conflicts critical to the plot are solved by time and chance instead of action on the part of the characters. We have to wait for matters to resolve themselves, like Lionel, in suspense. Unfortunately, we do not have his gentlemanly fortitude.

The narrative effectively uses mysteries to kick off and drive the plot, but beyond this, it does not display sufficient effort and desire to resolve them through action. Our hero Lionel has lost his inheritance mysteriously. He has clues of the glove and the suspicions about Dr West. He is married to Sibylla who is squandering his fortune and is possibly a bigamist. Sibylla accuses him of Rachel's death. Really, he is desperately in love with Lucy. And yet, in the middle of all these sensational calamities, Lionel takes no action at all to tackle them. He is too much of a gentleman to get his hands dirty in ferreting out secrets. This is the downfall of Verner's Pride as a sensation novel.

This conclusion may well reflect my view as a modern reader who is overly-familiar with the genre conventions of detective fiction. But judging by the less than enthusiastic reception of Verner's Pride in 1863, perhaps Mrs Henry Wood's contemporary readers felt the same way.

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