Thursday, 5 December 2013

Two Births in Glastonbury

"It certainly was the night-bell that rang.
"Little things not infrequently contribute to significant conclusions, and although the music of a doctor's bell can hardly call for any very special chronicles, in this instance it may well evidence a resisting power on the part of a member of the college of Surgeons, who was not the less at all points a man, because he was an accoucheur at all seasons."

Er, what? This is the opening of Miriam May. The first sentence is short and to the point. The added emphasis of the italics seems to suggest that we might doubt our hearing. The second sentence runs wildly away with verbiosity from philosophical pronouncements to French. All this sentence seems to mean, is that the ringing of the bell starts our story, and the doctor is reluctant to answer its call. This opening sounds a warning bell: Miriam May will attempt to be witty but may well end up being obtuse unless we can accustom ourselves to the narrator's somewhat over-elaborate style.

Harvey Montaigne, "the doctor of Glastonbury," has been called by the bell to attend to Mrs Trevor. "In the face of a snow-storm, and a frost that has no counterpart in these days," Doctor Montaigne travels into the night to assist in the birth of our narrator. As a nod to Sterne, the story has begun before its narrator has entered the world: "I was as yet unborn when the night-bell rang on that twenty-third of January, but it was my coming that took Harvey Montaigne from his bed that night." (Miriam May, Chapter 1)

On his way back from the Trevor residence, Harvey Montaigne encounters a dying girl at the workhouse door. She is beautiful, her eyes "rich in their beauty." She is "that lovely girl." Our good doctor carries her into the workhouse, but there is more: "she whom he carries was a mother." And even worse: she looks at the doctor with "her soft lustrous eyes, and gave him her thin, white hand, whereon there certainly was no wedding ring." (Miriam May, Chapter 1). As a clue to her miserable state, the girl mumbles about Geoffrey.

This is a dramatic beginning for the novel: on this same snow-bound, frosty night in January, are born both our narrator Arthur, the second son of the respectable Trevors, and the daughter of the (apparently) un-wed mother at the workhouse door. This is a good starting point for a sensational story.

The mystery of the girl at the workhouse door is partly dispelled in the next two chapters. They give the back-story of Evelyn Mervyn. Evelyn's father, Farmer Stephen Mervyn" is a "desirable" widower "in every way" (Miriam May, Chapter 2). Evelyn grew up without the guiding hand of a mother and without any schooling: "she should at least escape the pollution of a school." The narrator's views on the schooling of girls are not very positive: he seems to think that girls only encounter temptations at school and are trained to dissemble. Evelyn, on the other hand, "was so much blessed above those who were her neighbours, that she hardly ever knew temptation, for she had never known school." Therefore, when at the age of fourteen, Evelyn loses her father, she becomes "the orphan who by the educational temptations that had been wisely kept from her, had grown up into womanhood without guile ..." This is one way of saying that she was an innocent. (Miriam May, Chapter 2).

After her father's death, Evelyn seeks advice from Honourable and Reverend Calvin Slie. (The name reveals something of his character.) The Reverend seems spellbound by Evelyn's golden hair and blue eyes, to the extent that he finds it difficult to keep his hands off her: "indeed, Evelyn was inclined to think his hands had already remained on her head much longer than was necessary for the realisation even of all the abundance of grace that he wished." (Miriam May, Chapter 2). The Rev Slie arranges for Evelyn to become a seamstress making shirts in a small sweatshop - "eight pence a shirt" (Miriam May, Chapter 3). Evelyn loses her health and eventually quits the job. Instead she joins a theatre. The theatre manager treats her "with none of the offensive familiarity of Mr Slie." Here is a point of interest: a low church clergyman the Rev Slie is depicted as a somewhat dubious character with his wandering hands and deals with sweatshops. A theatre manager is depicted as a generous and kindly figure.

Evelyn is a great success at the theatre with "her golden hair, and the lovely face, and the figure that had none of the advantages of a 'course of deportment'" (Miriam May, Chapter 3). The narrator really does not like contemporary women's education. She performs to full houses, and when appearing as Lucy in The Rivals, she even adds a dance to the bill.

As an aside, The Rivals is by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) and was first performed at Covent Garden in 1775, where this comedy of manners was severely criticized as a long play badly acted and containing much bawdiness. It was withdrawn after the first night, Sheridan rewrote it in ten days, and it has remained popular ever since. It is no surprise that it should be staged in Glastonbury for Evelyn to take a small supporting role in it. Lucy is the scheming maid of Lydia, a rich heiress who juggles various admirers. Lucy deceives one of these admirers, delivering his love-notes for Lydia instead to Lydia's aunt Mrs Malaprop - whose peculiarity with words gave us 'malapropism'.

Evelyn's career on stage ends, "as the local prints the next day had it," with "a very great sensation." A stranger in the stage box throws a bouquet onto the stage for Evelyn. The accompanying note is signed G. M. but we are not told its contents. It upsets Evelyn: "With the burning blood crimsoning her lovely face, and her eyes flashing great flashes of indignant fire, she flung the flowers aside, and running to the footlights, threw herself sobbing on her knees and prayed of the audience to save her from such cruel insult." (Miriam May Chapter 3). The stranger declares he would call Evelyn "my lawful wife."

"... from that night Evelyn Mervyn was never seen again in the little theatre of Glastonbury." But, "She had borne a baby at the workhouse door ..." (Miriam May, Chapter 3).

The story of Evelyn Mervyn, establishes her as a woman with a secret. Her journey from the stage to the workhouse door is still unknown. Most importantly, it is unclear whether she is married and a poor abandoned creature, or unmarried and a doomed, fallen woman. The fate of her child depends upon this.

The style of writing in Miriam May is thick, convoluted and obtuse. But it is also distinct. There is a discernible narrative voice that is not at all unpleasant to follow. We see glimpses of opinions about women's education and low church clergymen that perhaps sound more like the views of the Reverend Arthur Robins than the views of a young man like our narrator Arthur Trevor. Maybe the clue is in the name and the author and the narrator are not that far apart.

There are scenes that are satisfyingly melodramatic. But some scenes remain a little unclear. At the opening chapter it is not immediately clear that Evelyn has given birth at the workhouse door; it is simply stated that she was a mother. At the theatre scene it is not clear whether the stranger with initials G. M. is claiming that Evelyn is his wife, is proposing to her, or simply is trying to assure her that his intentions are honourable. It may be that Robins's language gets in the way of the story or he is being too around-about in the way he writes about details he considers too intimate to spell out. The problem may also lie in a common difficulty of every novelist: you forget to show the reader all the important detail simply because the vision is so clear in your own head. The author's mind is filled with the dramatic scene and it plays through (in this case) his imagination like a film. The author forgets that the reader is not watching the same film, but depends entirely on the words that he manages to get on the page. There is a merry, chuckling quality to Robins's writing and you get a distinct impression that he was having fun writing Miriam May.

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