Thursday, 16 January 2014
The Eye of the Tutor
In Miriam May, Miriam saves Arthur three times in sensational incidents. First Miriam saves Arthur from a jail sentence. Then she saves his inheritance after his mother dies. Finally, Miriam rescues Arthur from a burning building. All these incidents sound thrilling and suitably conventional for plot twists in sensation fiction. But Miriam May fails in each instance to send the right kind of a shiver down the reader's spine. Instead these incidents will serve as good illustrations of bad writing.
Mr Slie recommends Mr George Alexis Wray as a tutor for Arthur and his elder brother (Miriam May, Chapter 7). "He was one of those measureless hypocrites whose success in those households he infested, were in the main brought about by an appeal to that religion which he only professed that he might profane it." We can assume that Wray, like Slie, is a religious man of the Low Church variety, unpalatable to our narrator. Wray stays as tutor in Glastonbury Grange for seven years until one day in the school room, to discipline Arthur, Wray ends up "dealing me two blows with a huge dictionary, which brought me stunned to the ground at his feet." (Miriam May, Chapter 7). Arthur is enraged by this treatment. He seizes Wray by the throat: "for the first time in my short life I knew what it was to have revenge, and I liked it well enough to wish for more." (Ibid.) Arthur is in a murderous rage: "I closed my fingers all the tighter ... I was not frightened but very glad when I saw how black his face had turned and how his eyes stated and stared. Devilish thoughts had so come over me that I laughed at his agony." Wray pulls out a knife, Arthur "stayed his hand" and in the fight Wray stabs himself in the eye. Arthur recoils from this gruesome sight: "I felt a sickness creeping on me, such as I had never felt before; whilst my head turned giddy, and for a while I was as one that was dead." (Ibid.)
This extremely violent, horrific scene of the school boy and the teacher is followed immediately by a comic scene where Wray's legal representative Mr Latimer Latitude tries to extract compensation for Wray from Arthur's father. The dialogue is courteous legalese in the best weaselly tradition. Mr Trevor refuses to pay Wray, even if his own solicitor tells him that "Mr Wray has a case." (Miriam May, Chapter 9). Arthur is accused of an assault. He is jailed, because he refused bail. "I had resolved to go to prison." Even though, "I might within an hour have been at large on bail." (Ibid.) At his trial: "I looked around the court and saw many a hard face fixed in its callous ridicule on me that had come to sneer from Glastonbury, to see my shame, and listen to the judgment on the rich man's son." (Ibid.) After this gloom start to the proceedings, Robins goes on to have fun with comically convoluted speeches by the lawyers about this "piece of savagery ... unequalled in our criminal annals." In the end, it is the word of a boy against the word of a preacher and the verdict is about to go against Arthur, when on the court room aisle "trembling and beautiful, kneeled Miriam May." "I can save you - save you!" She calls and insists on speaking. "She seemed like an angel ... [with] her heaving bosom ... he exceeding loveliness." Miriam claims she was an eye-witness to the incident between Arthur and Mr Wray, and as a result Arthur is declared "Not Guilty." (Ibid.)
Arthur's father Mr Trevor loses much of his money and then dies.His executor is Mr Stoolman. After Mr Trevor's death, Mrs Stoolman, a grasping woman, persuades Mrs Trevor to write a second will and more or less dictates it to her. The purpose of this will is to benefit Mrs Stoolman and "many years ought to be put between me and my inheritance," according to Arthur. At the time, Miriam May saw Mr Banco the solicitor arrive to "make the will." Miriam ""had gone up before them, and hidden herself, and heard all." (Miriam May, Chapter 10). In addition to this eaves-dropping, Miriam then burns the new will and keeps the old one.
Eighteen months later Mrs Trevor follows her husband to the grave (Miriam May, Chapter 10). Again, the Stoolmans arrive at Glastonbury Grange. They bring along their daughter, called Sophonisba, who "was known to scream at wasps, black beetles, and naked little boys in their baths." (Miriam May, Chapter 11). There is much comic debate about Mrs Trevor's legacy with the Stoolmans and the McGrabs (also related to the family) trying to appropriate items in the house. Eventually the house is searched for Mrs Trevor's will. Arthur has told Miriam to keep the will hidden to see "what a turn things might take." Well, they take no turn whatsoever, so in the very next paragraph Miriam pretends to find the will. Miriam has saved Arthur's inheritance.
Later in the novel, Miriam and Arthur attend a reception for Mr Slie at Mrs Dubbelfaise's house. "There was coffee and conversation, and then a little severe sacred music." (Miriam May, Chapter 16). The place catches fire. Miriam May notices the flames and calls to Arthur: "Come! See I can save you yet." Together they save others and get them out of the burning building: "Whenever I turned to look for her, I saw that her great, soft loving eyes were fixed on me." The house burns down, but never mind; Mrs Dubbelfaise "had been an insuring woman for many years." (Miriam May, Chapter 17).
So what is wrong with these plot twists of crime, inheritance and destruction by fire? Why do these stock devices of sensational plotting not work in Miriam May?
First, they are contrived. Mr Wray is only introduced into the narrative in order to be stabbed in the eye. Arthur gives no reason for his determination to refuse bail. The Stoolmans are only introduced into the narrative for the inheritance sub-plot to be run through in a single chapter (Chapter 10). There is no explanation of Miriam's motives for burning the second will - or rather there is no consideration of the moral implications of her actions. She appears entirely single-minded in her devotion to Arthur. The fire at Mrs Dubbelfaise's house flares up by accident and no harm is done. The three incidents are not embedded in the course of the narrative, they are bolts out of the blue, constructed quickly and vanish without a trace.
Secondly, they do not contribute to the overall plot. The only purpose of all three incidents seems to be to allow Miriam to save Arthur so that he will notice her devotion sufficiently to marry her. Arthur's violent temper, his inheritance, and the loss of Mrs Dubbelfaise's house do not advance the narrative. They are anecdotal events.
Thirdly, the three incidents do not add anything to the characterization in the novel. Quite the opposite, they are red herrings. Arthur's uncontrollable temper revealed in the incident with Mrs Wray could be potentially significant. He could be a man who has to struggle to master his passions. No such luck, there is no indication in the rest of the narrative that Arhur has any fire in his belly. Miriam's eavesdropping and her decision to burn Mrs Trevor's second will are clearly signs that she is not a complete goody-two-shoes. This is also potentially excellent for a sensation novel, the genre revels in contradictory heroines. But no, the rest of the time Miriam May is an angel. There are no repercussions from the fire. This dramatic incident does not appear to affect the relationship of the main characters.
Finally, each of these sensational incidents are stylistically mixed with comedy that takes the thrill away from them. Mr Latimer Latitude and the Stoolmans are comic characters whose only purpose is to provide light entertainment. The fire begins after a scene with social comedy when Mrs Dubbelfaise's son's attempts to dance with Miriam are interruped by Mr Slie's call for prayer. In short, the writing is too uneven to be carry the reader smoothly with it. The narrative does not know which note to strike: melodramatic or comic. This is a good mix with a long tradition in popular entertainment, but in Miriam May, the mix is not sufficiently controlled and managed. Instead the comic eats into the ability of the melodramatic to thrill, and the melodrama takes away the joy of the comedy. This is particularly stark in the case of Mr Wray. It is very awkward to associate the horrifically violent, powerful scene of Arthur's attack on Mr Wray with the comic parody of courtroom descriptions of the same event.
I would ask all novelists to avoid these pitfalls demonstrated so well by the eye of the tutor.