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.

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.