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.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

"A Lady Involves So Much Expense"

The characters in Verner's Pride are not lumbered with much depth and subtlety. They do not develop as the narrative progresses: "In little things as in great, Lionel Verner could but be a thorough gentleman, to be otherwise he must have changed his nature." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 9). This array of flat, somewhat stock characters helps Verner's Pride to take a comic (and critical) look particularly at upper class ladies with their idleness and profligacy and working class women with their gossiping and credulousness. The upper class ladies lead a distinctly idle life. The lower class women are much more enterprising and active. They stage a riot and smash the windows of Peckaby's shop (Verner's Pride, Chapter 22). They fortify themselves with drink and go ghost hunting (Verner's Pride, Chapter 51). But for women on all levels of society, marriage and husbands are central as providers of material comforts.

Mrs Verner spends her days eating and sleeping. She "liked to take her share of the dessert, if the others did not, and she generally remained in the dining-room for the evening, rarely caring to move. Truth to say, Mr Verner was rather addicted to dropping asleep with her last glass of wine and waking up with the tea-tray" (Chapter 3). She absolutely refuses to change her habits for the sake of her health. (Chapter 31).

Lady Verner, Lionel's mother, is woman accustomed to luxury, never reconciled to the fact the Verner's Pride was inherited by her husband's younger brother rather than by her son (Verner's Pride, Chapters 1 and 11). "Her income was sadly limited ... her habits were somewhat expensive." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 11) Her finances fluctuate with Lionel's fortunes; her carriage and horses are kept or lost depending on whether Lionel is the master of Verner's Pride (Verner's Pride, Chapters 33, 46). We first meet her "sitting in idleness ... - she always did sit in idleness" (Verner's Pride, Chapter 10).

At the other end of the social scale, Mrs Duff is the "linen-draper-in-ordinary to Deerham," (Verner's Pride, Chapter 3), a widow with a "flock" of children and a successful business she runs as the gossip-HQ of the village. Her friend Susan Peckaby runs a grocery store with her husband (Verner's Pride, Chapter 22). "A tall, strong brawny man was he; his wife was a remarkably tall woman, fond of gossip and of smart caps. She would go gadding out of hours at a stretch, leaving him to get through all the work." (Ibid.)

Sibylla West, the ambitious daughter of a country doctor deep in debt, is the seductive femme fatale of the story. She is a villain, and the narrative takes immense delight in her misbehaviour: "She cried, she sobbed, she protested, she stormed, she raved." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 70) She is a typical sensational female villain: she is not calculating and plotting but rather a victim of her own uncontrolled impulses and desires. She is selfish, greedy, restless and loud. She is a woman out of control. She is not ladylike, even if at first glance she looks the part. "of real beauty she possessed little. A small, pretty doll's face with blue eyes and gold-coloured ringlets; a round face, betraying nothing very great, or good, or intellectual; only something fascinating and pretty." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 12) Sibylla wants Verner's Pride, she just has to marry the right man, or two at the same time, and one of them maybe a murderer.

The good woman in the story is Lucy Tempest, who, in the end, wins Lionel's heart and becomes the mistress of Verner's Pride. She has completed her schooling with "a clergyman's family" and has been parked with Lady Verner to await for her father Colonel Tempest to return from India (Verner's Pride, Chapter 11). Lucy is described as a child: "she looks but a child. ...  A very pleasant-looking girl." She has "a frank sincerity of manner perfectly refreshing in these modern days of artificial young ladyism." (Ibid.) She has the "manner of a timid school-girl. .. A child of seven might have been so dressed." "Lucy Tempest was thoroughly and genuinely unsophisticated" (Ibid.). "A delightful child," Lionel thinks. (Ibid.) Lucy is eighteen years old (Ibid.). This is our traditional Victorian heroine - child-like, virtuous and simple-hearted. Through all of Lionel's trials and tribulations - including his disastrous first marriage - Lucy sympathizes her socks off. Lucy's actions in the narrative are very limited; her sole role is to provide a thoroughly good love interest for Lionel. They will make a very boring couple, even if a happy one.

Brother Jarrum from Salt Lake City, Utah appears in town (Verner's Pride, Chapter 34). In no time "Women of all ages flocked in to hear him." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 39). Brother Jarrum promises "husbands to all. Old or young, married or single, each was safe to be made the wife of one of these favoured prophets the instant she set foot in the new city." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 39). He describes the beautiful houses and fertile vegetable and fruit gardens, a ballroom "not far from a hundred feet long," theatres, dancing and abundant suppers on offer to those who join the Mormons. But it gets even better: 

"If you see two females in the street, one a saint's wife, the t'other a new arrival, you can always tell which is which. The wife's got a slender waist, like a lady, with a delicate colour in her face, and silky hair; the new-comer's tanned, and fat, and freckled, and clumsy." (Ibid.)   

And what is more, according to Jarrum, "servants here are not servants there. Who'd be a servant if she could be a missis?" (Ibid.) There are no old maids nor widows among the Mormons (Ibid.). This dream catches the imagination of the Deerham women: what Brother Jarrum describes to them is a life-style similar to that of the upper class Verner-ladies - fundamentally idle.

The Mormons way of life is directly contrasted with Sibylla's possible bigamy: "The second can't be her husband; it would be as bad as those Mormons." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 60). The narrative introduces a dimension of social criticism and asks us to consider the two different worlds of the rich and the poor squeezed into the same physical space of Deerham. This social dimension is much stronger in the story of Alice Hook.

Lionel wants to make "improvements." He feels guilty for the miserable living conditions of the estate workers: "It shall not be said that while I live in a palace, my poor live in pigsties." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 34). He visits the working class hovels and comes face to face with their poverty. He is appalled by what he sees (Verner's Pride, Chapter 25). The situation culminates in the misfortune of Alice Hook, "a little more than a child" who "had, as the Deerham phrase ran, got herself into trouble." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 46) Now she was "the talk of the village." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 53). Alice's fall is blamed on her sleeping arrangements: in a single room with her parents and siblings. (Verner's Pride, Chapters 46, 53) The narrative brings this point home:

"Did you ever pay a visit to a room of this social grade? If not you will deem the introduction of this one highly coloured. ... on a straw mattress, slept three sons, grown up, or nearly so; between these beds was another straw mattress where lay Alice and her sister, a year younger, no curtains, no screens, no anything." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 54).

Alice Hook appears in the narrative just as Sibylla's extravagant spending drives Lionel inescapably towards "embarrassment." Lionel feels responsible for Alice's "blight" (Verner's Pride, Chapter 46, 55), "People are saying that if I gave them decent dwellings, decent conduct would ensue." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 55). Lionel has to make a choice whether to lavish his money on luxuries for his wife and mother or spend it to improve the lives of people like Alice. "Between the building programme and Sibylla, he was drained." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 46).  There is a direct comparison between the lives of Sibylla and Alice when Lionel thinks of the spacious bedrooms of Verner's Pride compared to the single bedroom for "those poor Hooks" (Ibid.).

This social commentary embedded in Verner's Pride is not very subtle. It is digressive. Brother Jarrum's preaching and the incidents that follow on from it, do not contribute to the main plot about the inheritance of Verner's Pride. Lionel's desire to make "improvements" in his workers' living conditions is a crude way of highlighting his good character and Sibylla's bad one; again, it does not affect the main plot. However these themes add to the narrative by broadening its social canvas and making it more interesting and convincing by being more inclusive. Instead of narrowly focusing on the resolution of the mysteries of Rachel's death, the missing codicil and ghost, Verner's Pride has given space in the narrative to the lives and voices of poor characters, most significantly to poor women. These characters may not be subtly drawn, but they make a valuable and interesting contribution to the narrative.

Friday, 16 August 2013

"I'm in Fear of Him Always"

The Verners' bailiff Giles Roy, a generally mean character, "was accustomed to keep his wife in due submission. ... [S]he was afraid of her husband." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 5). Not a single friendly word passes between the couple in the whole novel. Mrs Roy consistently weeps, cowers and hides herself throwing her apron over her face (Verner's Pride, Chapter 45). Her life has been reduced to such misery by her violent husband: "she had often been seen in a shaky state from very trifling causes" (Verner's Pride, Chapter 6). When she is questioned as a witness by Mr Verner after Rachel's death, he asks her why she continues to be so alarmed. Mrs Roy replies: "Because my husband says he'll shake me, she whimpered, after a long pause. (Verner's Pride, Chapter 6)

"Giles Roy knew that his wife was prone to flights of fancy. He was in the habit of administering one sovereign remedy, which he believed to be an infallible panacea for wives' ailments whenever it was applied - a hearty good shaking. He gave her a slight instalment as he turned away.
"Wait till I get you home," said he significantly. "I'll drive the ghosts out of ye!"" (Verner's Pride, Chapter 5)

Henry Mayhew's The London Labour and the London Poor (1861-2) in Volume 1 describes violence among the London coster-mongers: "Another lad informed me, with a knowing look, "that the gals—it was a rum thing now he come to think on it—axully liked a feller for walloping them. As long as the bruises hurted, she was always thinking on the cove as gived 'em her." (p. 36. Source Tufts Digital Library. See particularly sections "Of the Education of the Coster-Lads" and "Of the Coster-Girls." Note that both Internet Archive and Google Books have volume 2 under the title of volume 1).
Round London: Down East and Up West was published in 1892 (with a preface by Charles Dickens), just after the death of its author Montagu Williams Q. C. (1835-1892). It contains sketches of London life Williams wrote for Household Words. One of them (Chapter VI) is entitled "The London Hospital" and in it he writes (pp. 50-1):

"If any one has any doubts as to the brutalities practised on women by men, let him visit the London Hospital on a Saturday night. Very terrible sights will meet his eye. Sometimes as many as twelve or fourteen women may be seen seated in the receiving-room, waiting for their bruised and bleeding faces and bodies to be attended to. In nine cases out of ten the injuries have been inflicted by brutal and perhaps drunken husbands. The nurses tell me, however, that any remarks they may make reflecting on the aggressors are received with great indignation by the wretched sufferers. They positively will not hear a single word against the cowardly ruffians.
   “Sometimes,” said a nurse to me, “when I have told a woman that her husband is a brute, she has drawn herself up and replied: ‘You mind your own business, miss. We find the rates and taxes, and the likes of you are paid out of ‘em to wait on us.”’
   One day a German woman, who could not have been more than twenty years of age, was introduced into the general ward to be treated for a broken jaw. On the following day several friends came to see her, and among them her reputed husband, who had inflicted the injury. As soon as she saw him she burst into tears, and begged the nurse to allow her to return home with him at once. Upon being told that her removal from the hospital would be attended with danger, she re­luctantly consented to remain there for the time being; but she left two days afterwards. As she was taking her departure, the nurse warned her that the slightest additional violence on her husband’s part must be fatal, whereupon she exclaimed impatiently
   “Ah, ma’am, you don’t know anything about it. You see, I love him with all my heart.”
   And at this time the jaw had not even been set.”
Source: online version available at This quote is also included in Lee Jackson's The Dictionary of Victorian London. He gives the publication year 1894.

Domestic violence is seldom a simple matter, but is entangled in all kinds of emotional and financial ties and social expectations. Dinah Roy's character is an example of this. In Victorian times (perhaps even more than today) abuse like the one experienced by Mrs Roy remained hidden inside the four walls of the home. According to Professor Clive Emsley: "Domestic violence rarely came before the courts. ... among some working-class communities it continued to have a degree of tolerance, while amongst other classes the publicising of such behaviour, even, perhaps especially, in the courts, would have been regarded as bringing a family's reputation into disrepute. (Source:

As Emsley's words indicate, it was not only working class women who suffered in the hands of their husbands. Domestic violence and a robust exchange of view between spouses in Verner's Pride is very much a working class trait. But in reality domestic violence happened on all levels of society.
In her blog Writing Women's History, Jen Newby describes the a middle-class divorce case: "In July 1894 Mary Gertrude Campbell filed for divorce from her husband, Frederick Burleigh Campbell. In a quiet middle-class Cheltenham street, Frederick Campbell had apparently been behaving cruelly and even violently towards his own family." (

Perhaps the most famous case of marital violence at the top of the society is that of Caroline Norton (1808-1877). (See her biography A Scandalous Woman by Alan Chedzoy, or for a shorter overview Spurred on by her personal situation and helped by her high social standing, her persistent political lobbying led to several advances in women's legal rights (1839 Infant Custody Bill, and 1857 Divorce Bill).

Domestic violence was also a concern for the suffrage movement. In 1866 the Kensington Ladies Discussion Society presented a petition signed by 1,498 women (1,499 according to the Wikipedia and 1,500 according to Spartacus Educational []) demanding women's suffrage.  John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) introduced it in the Parliament (he was the step-father of Miss Helen Taylor, one of the organizers of the petition). Mill ended his speech:

"I should like to have a return laid before this House of the number of women who are actually beaten to death, kicked to death, or trampled to death by their male protectors; and in an opposite column, the amount of the sentences passed, in those cases where the dastardly criminals did not get off altogether."
(Source: A. N. Wilson The Victorians (2002), p. 314).

In Verner's Pride, domestic violence is an indicator of Roy's unpleasant character. He is querulous, ambitious and greedy, but he is not a criminal or a villain. And none of the other characters seem concerned about Roy's treatment of his wife. Some of the working class couples in the novel occasionally resemble a Punch and Judy show rather than respectable marriages. Parkes forces his ill wife to get out of bed and go to work (Verner's Pride, Chapter 93) and the Peckabys provide a complete slap-stick marital subplot (running between Chapters 22 and 74), which nicely contrasts with the marriage of Lionel Verner. (For comments on the Punch and Judy show and marriage see Chapter 2 in Rosalind Crone's Violent Victorians [2012]).

Significantly, the morally questionable men in the big house are idle, profligate, unconcerned for the welfare of their workers or the morals of their servants. John Massingbird tries to steal a kiss from shocked Rachel Frost (Verner's Pride, Chapter 1), Frederic Massingbird makes and breaks his promises to her (Verner's Pride, Chapter 80). As owners of the estate, they let their workers live in squalor with annual epidemics of ague (Verner's Pride, Chapter 79). But none of the gentlemen, we can assume, would resort to anything as crude and uncouth as physical violence against women. Domestic violence is working class behaviour.

Lionel Verner asks Dinah Roy: "What are these fears that seem to pursue you? ... What is the cause?" She replies:

"Roy keeps me in fear, sir. He's for ever a-threatening. He'll shake me, or he'll pinch me, or he'll do for me, he says. I'm in fear of him always."

And how does Lionel reply to this? - "That is an evasive answer." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 45). Domestic violence was not only tolerated in the working class community of Deerham, it was tolerated by the enlightened, benign master of that community, who is also the gentleman-hero of our story. It can also be argued that it was accepted as part of working class way of life by the narrative of Verner's Pride. There is no happy end for Dinah Roy - against her will she is forced to emigrate to Australia with her husband: "He had never studied her wishes too much, and he was not likely to begin to do so now." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 90).

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.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

A Book Fit for Women? - Mrs Henry Wood's Verner's Pride (1863)

In Mrs Henry Wood's (1814-1887) Verner's Pride (1863), Sibylla Verner is reading a French novel given to her by her new French maid Benoite. Her husband Lionel Verner comes in with a milliner's bill. An argument ensues and ...

"Sibylla petulantly threw the French book from her lap upon the table, and it fell down with its page open.
            Lionel's eyes caught its title, and a flush, not less deep than the preceding flush, darkened his brow. He laid his open palm on the page with an involuntary movement, as if he would guard it from the eyes of his wife. That she should be reading that notorious work!"
            "Where did you get this?" he cried. "It is not a fit book for you."
"There's nothing the matter with the book as far as I have gone."
"Indeed, you must not read it! Pray don't, Sibylla! You will be sorry for it afterwards."
"How do you know that it is not a fit book?"
"Because I have read it."
"There! You have read it! And you would like to deny the pleasure to me! Don't say you are never selfish."
"Sibylla! What is fit for me to read may be most unfit for you. I read the book when I was a young man ..."

Lionel instructs Sibylla to send the book out of the house "or to keep it under lock and key while it remains within it." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 50).

This is another reference to the dangerous and corrupting influence of Madame Bovary; what else could "that notorious work" be? The French novel is used here to demonstrate the erosion of Sibylla's moral character, or rather the revealing of Sibylla's true character, after her marriage to wealthy Lionel. It functions as shorthand to indicate sensual and self-centred wantonness. The scene also calls attention to the different expectations for men and women. What is fit for Lionel to read, especially when he was "a young man" is highly unsuitable for a lady and a wife like Sibylla. Sibylla's complaint that Lionel would deny her a pleasure he has enjoyed himself sounds both reasonable and audacious (depending on the reader's view on gender equality). Sibylla is both a confident woman questioning her husband's patronizing attitude, and a subversive woman, asking to experience the immoral pleasure only men are entitled to.

In 1836, at the age of 22, Miss Ellen Price married Mr Henry Wood and the couple spent the next twenty years in France. As Flaubert was writing Madame Bovary, Mrs Henry Wood was publishing short stories in English periodicals the New Monthly Magazine and Bentley’s Miscellany. Around the time Madame Bovary was published in volume form in 1856 and Flaubert was taken to court over its immorality in 1857, Mr Henry Wood's finances suffered a collapse and the family returned to England.

Ellen Wood
Mrs Henry Wood by Reginald Easton. Source:

After this turn in their fortunes, Mrs Henry Wood turned into another Victorian female literary powerhouse who supported her family by publishing up to three novels a year and editing the magazine  Argosy. (For more information on her life and work see, especially a brief biography compiled by Michael Flowers.) In 1860 she won a novel competition with Danesbury House. After this came East Lynne (1861), one of the most famous Victorian sensation novels. Mrs Henry Wood's career was now truly launched and she began to spin out massive three-deckers at a frightening speed. The Channings and Lady Hallibutron's Troubles were both published in 1862. That same year she published a controversial A Life’s Secret anonymously. A year later she had The Shadow of Ashlydyat appear in instalments in the New Monthly at the same time as Verner’s Pride was appearing in Once a Week. In 1864, too, she brought out a short children’s novel William Allair; or Running Away to Sea as well as two massive three-deckers Lord Oakburn’s Daughters and Oswald Cray. She wrote thirty novels and over a hundred short stories. Her narratives have an element of suspense. They are plot-driven stories of mystery and romance, often involving crime. She also wrote stories about the super-natural.

"Nothing strikes the reader of East Lynne more than the extraordinary manner in which the mystery of each part of the plot is preserved. As the reader feels that he is moving in the different parts of the drama, and unconsciously feels himself deeply interested in its several characters, he almost trembles as each dangerous turning-point of the story is passed. East Lynne, we may truly say, is no ordinary novel."
(The Conservative, quoted in Charles W. Wood, Memorials of Mrs Henry Wood, 1894. Source: /contemporary.html)

We can contrast this glowing review for East Lynne with the following for Verner's Pride two years later:

"This book is one of those which it is hard to describe positively. It is not a bad nor even a stupid novel. Style, characters, incidents, sentiments, are all of them up to the mark of respectability, and might, indeed, be thought promising in the first essay of an untried writer. Yet, it is not easy to see what can be said for the story except that it is readable ... The marks of haste are visible in every part of this her last work - in the often careless writing, the ill-connected episodes, the profusion of incidents our of which a good plot might have been elaborated with moderate diligence and thought ..." (The Saturday Review, Feb1863. Source: /contemporary.html)
Verner's Pride, then, is not a very good novel and not one of Mrs Henry Wood's best works. Despite this, I would suggest that there are features in this novel which make it quite fascinating reading. Aspects of the novel that perhaps made it unsatisfactory for Victorian readers, may add value to the narrative for today's audience.

The interesting key themes of Verner's Pride  are visible in the scene quoted above, with Sibylla and Lionel arguing about the milliner's bill and the French novel. Verner's Pride is about gender-relations. Like East Lynne, the novel's attention is very much on women's lives and tribulations. The relationships between men and women, husbands and wives are central to the narrative. Digressions into the lives of the rural labourers and other country folk, away from the main plot and characters, may have been "ill-connected episodes, the profusion of incidents" to the reviewer in The Saturday Review, but many of them provide additional depth to the picture that the novel paints of the relations between men and women.
Verner's Pride is also about money and wealth and the role they play in the community. The narrative encompasses all levels of society and their interconnectedness in a rural community. An important part of how this community functions is based on wealth. Verner's Pride is a social study. Like many sensation novels, it depicts and comments on (and questions perhaps) how society functions. In addition, there is sex, murder, bigamy, ghosts and Mormons.