Friday, 14 February 2014

Happy Ending Does Not a Happy Reader Make

While Arthur is in Oxford, Evelyn and Miriam descend into penury as dress-makers; their rich customers stretch their credit and refuse to pay their bills. Arthur rescues them by lodging them with a kindly Mrs Bertram, a family friend. After Arthur is ordained, Miriam listens to his sermons, teaches at Sunday school and helps him to do good works among the poor (Miriam May, Chapter 15). Despite this, Arthur does not think of Miriam as a potential spouse: "it was never to me that love which sees in such a loveliness a wife."  (Ibid.) It is only when Miriam pleads with him after Arthur threatens to move away, that he decides to marry her instead of taking her along as a servant. As Arthur puts it: "And why not?" (Miriam May, Chapter 17). It is fortunate, that in every way Miriam demonstrates that she will make a worthy wife:

"Miriam, now that she had entered on what was to her so new a life, soon showed that she could well fulfil the position to which she would be called. Miriam was in the full bloom of her rich womanly beauty, nor did her little white hand show dairy work or needlework. Had Miriam been called at any time to swell the loveliness of any court, that call would not have been to her too much." (Miriam May, Chapter 18).

Arthur and Miriam are married by Arthur's older brother (who is also a priest and remains nameless throughout the novel). "It is a humble, small wedding" (Miriam May, Chapter 18), with only the Bertrams, Evelyn May and Dr Montaigne present. Out of the blue a stranger appears and steps up to give Miriam away. "Evelyn, my wife, my own!" He exclaims. This is Geoffrey May, Evelyn's husband, returned at this critical moment after an absence of twenty-four years. "Evelyn, is this our child?" He asks about Miriam. "Geoffrey, you have come; Miriam it is your father; ... Geoffrey, this is our child." After this reunion, the wedding ceremony continues, only: "it was seen by all, Evelyn May now wore a ring." (Ibid.).

At the end of the scene the narrator comments: "Geoffrey May had a good deal to explain, and I cannot know but that he should have at last a chapter to himself." (Ibid.) I should think so!

At the theatre, seeing Evelyn for the first time, Geoffrey "laid at her feet the promise of his rich inheritance of much gold." (Miriam May, Chapter 19). "She did not hate, nor did she love the man" (Ibid.). After a short courtship via letter-writing, they were "married privately in Italy." But, Sir Melville May wanted his son to marry "a blonde woman of no mean means." Sir Melville threatens to cut Geoffrey out of his will. In Geoffrey's own words: "So he will cut me off, so he will rob me, if he but hears that I have married this girl; be it so - to get his gold, I must cast her off - ... A beggar he'd make me. He would like to see me come to want, to rot, to starve. I am a devil, I know that - but so is he." (Ibid.) Geoffrey takes the wedding ring from sleeping Evelyn's finger, leaves behind a letter to explain it all (and proving that Evelyn is his lawful wife) and walks out. Again, conveniently, the very day after Sir Melville dies and Geoffrey has safely inherited his fortune of £2,000, he receives a letter from Mrs Bertram, who just happens to be a family friend to the Mays as well, telling him about Evelyn and Miriam May.

Evelyn is now Lady May, she takes her place in Glastonbury society, and Sir Geoffrey arranges for both Evelyn and Miriam, the girl born on the workhouse steps, to be presented at court (Miriam May, Chapter 20). There is a happy end, because, although Geoffrey may have been a 'devil' who abandoned his wife for fortune and stayed away for twenty-four years leaving her and their daughter to live in poverty and depend on others' charity, there was no birth out of wedlock.

Why is Miriam May such a badly-written novel?  I have already suggested several reasons, but let's finish by summing up.

First, there are issues with the plot. There are wonderfully melodramatic events, but they contribute little to the overall plot and seem to have no consequences. For example, the three incidents where Miriam 'saves' Arthur (the eye of the tutor, the burning of the will and the burning house) have much potential for providing sensational moments and plot twists, and demonstrating depth in the characters. But they do not lead anywhere. There are events that have absolutely no bearing on the plot or the development of the characters, for example the fight over Mrs Trevor's plate after her death (Miriam May, Chapter 11). On the other hand, there are sensational, dramatic events with a significant bearing on the plot which are narrated only in the form of a belated explanation. Geoffrey May's twenty-four-year absence due to his problematic relationship with his "Godless" father is both implausible and potential source of sensational tension. This plot line is more or less wasted in the end of the narrative (Miriam May, Chapter 19).  

There are also issues with the characters. They are flat and one-dimensional in the tradition of melodrama. Miriam is a stereotypical, thoroughly good heroine, despite eaves-dropping on her benefactors and burning a will. Evelyn, the fiery young woman who runs off to the stage at the beginning of the novel, loses much of her character in later chapters and fades into the background. Mr Slie, the opportunistic evangelical could be a much stronger villain. Arthur Trevor does not have much internal life, and there is no sense of his character developing, even if the novel describes his life from childhood to marriage. Melodramatic stereotypes are fine, but they should appear in a tightly woven melodramatic plot, where the plot provides sufficient interest for us, so that we do not seek to engage with the characters to any great extent. This is not the case in Miriam May.

Finally, there are issues with the style of writing. There is nothing wrong with the religious theme of the book, but it is not really embedded in the narrative. It appears as a floating commentary rather then being visible in the thoughts and actions of the characters. There is a strange mix in the tone and style in the novel. Extremely violent scenes are mixed with almost macabre comedy (the eye of the tutor and the death of the member of parliament are examples). Robins was clearly having fun writing Miriam May, you can almost hear him chuckle on some pages. The novel displays a specific kind of sense of humour, specific preoccupations. One might argue that the author has his hobby-horse(s) too much on display. If you cannot trust your readers to share your preoccupations, if you cannot be sure that you are preaching to the converted, you should be very careful about trotting out your hobby-horses when writing fiction.

I think the critical problem is that Robins (and here, I mean Robins the author reflected in Miriam May, not the chaplain I know very little about) is too self-conscious in his writing; instead of telling a story from the inside, imagining his characters and events as a logical universe; he is inventing a chain of incidents from a distant and slightly ironic stand-point. He does not believe in the reality of his story and characters; he is telling an amusing anecdote. This is further evident in the lack of descriptions in the novel. We do not even know what Arthur Trevor looks like. There is very little dialogue, too. The narrative is made up of Arthur Trevor's monologue, which often (and appropriately, as he is a clergyman) sounds very much like a sermon. It is therefore very difficult for the reader to engage with the characters in Miriam May, be convinced by the world they inhabit and be carried away by the events in the narrative.

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