Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Importance of an Impressionable Hero

After the dramatic scene at the end of chapter six in Driven Home, George succumbs to brain-fever. He recovers, but although he can remember everything up to the moment when he and Carlos set of for Longman’s Drift, he cannot recall the events that took place there:

“Then utter forgetfulness, and not only forgetfulness; for with it came that painful sensation that I have experienced when endeavouring to grasp the idea of Eternity— a conception of vast space that has no beginning and no end. Superadded to this was a persuasion that some horror lurked underneath the partial and temporary veil which had clouded my memory, and which it would be folly to uplift.” (Driven Home, Chapter 7)

For the sake of the plot as much as for his own peace of mind, George does not seek to find out what happened that fateful night. Instead, “I became an enthusiastic farmer. … drinking and high play were completely abandoned.” (Ibid.). Time passes, but one day George again feels the irresistible power of some supernatural agent in his life: “it was absolutely necessary for me to return to London. … ” (Ibid.):

“Day and night, waking or sleeping, this irresistible power drove me on. No occupation, however absorbing, could at last, even for a moment, enable me to withdraw my mind from this one subject. The pressure on my brain became intolerable; and at last, perforce, I was obliged to subordinate my own volition to that of the unseen power, and I determined to start for England as soon as I could make the necessary arrangements.” (Ibid.)

An attentive reader will have an idea what might be driving George home. George might have an idea too, if he did not suffer from amnesia. Because he has already experienced the force of the supernatural agency in his life twice before (Driven Home, Chapters 4 and 6), he does not question the reason for experiencing it once more or link it to the events at Longman’s Drift (Driven Home, Chapter 7). The two earlier occasions are a pair of red herrings to mask the significance of the third experience, which now has some kind of a logical explanation.

George’s amnesia is a good example of the awkward tricks Victorian authors had to use in order to deal with the gradual unravelling of a mystery. In order for the following events to appear mysterious and frightening to George, in order for him to slowly make sense of them and piece the solution together, George has to start in a state of cluelessness. George’s amnesia is a distant (poor?) relative to Franklin Blake’s somnambulism in The Moonstone or John Jasper’s opium dream in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Once back in England, George continues to be haunted by strange spirits and the plot advances through a series of fortuitous coincidences. George meets Mrs Blythswood on the train. When he then suffers from nightmares, the doctor diagnoses “over-excited nerves” and sends him to the seaside town of Shelterbourne to recover (Driven Home, Chapter 8). This town is by coincidence where Mrs Blythswood resides, as well as the villain of the story, and the villain’s victim and her son. It is handy that Shelterbourne should be so popular.

Mrs Blythswood is a young widow; she was an abused wife: “the malignity and ingenuity of the persecution to which she had been subjected at the hands of her husband were almost incredible.” (Driven Home, Chapter 9) This abominable abuse took the somewhat suspect form of forbidding her to dress in mourning when her mother died on her way to America, or “to receive any newspapers which could have given her any details of the event.” (Ibid.)

In Shelterbourne, George joins a pleasant “whist coterie” at a club (Ibid.). Here, one afternoon, Doctor Erbach, the villain of the piece makes his appearance:

“Arriving at the club one afternoon, I observed among the intending players a stranger, whose appearance exercised at once an extraordinary effect over me. ... There was nothing really repulsive or alarming in the tall and active figure, and dark and somewhat handsome face, to account for the horror and repugnance which his presence caused me. It was the expression of his dark and deep-set eyes that so instantly and peremptorily commanded attention. There was a look of power, of unscrupulousness, in them,— a look which seemed to say, "No pity can restrain me in the pursuit of any object I may have in view,"— a look such as a successful necromancer might have worn, who, by the sacrifice of human victims, had acquired a familiarity with the secrets and powers of an unseen and supernatural world ; and yet, with this expression there seemed mingled a look of terror and anxiety, such as a commonplace murderer might have worn in the interval between the deed of blood and apprehended moment of discovery." (Driven Home, Chapter 9)

George assigns Dr Erbach typical qualities of a sensational villain. The first quality is the stranger’s immediate “extraordinary effect.” He does not impress with his physique or bodily strength; there is “nothing really repulsive or alarming” in his figure. Instead, his uncanny power is psychological and it is concentrated in his “dark and deep-set eyes.” The portrait of the villain is built up from the impression he makes on George. George imagines him to be an evil master of supernatural forces like “a successful necromancer.” He is also like “a commonplace murderer” on the run. The first image is magnificent and frightening, the second is despicable and doomed. This villain, by first impressions, is both a formidable opponent and one that can, and will, be vanquished.

At the whist table, partnered with Dr Erbach, George has the most horrifying experiences yet of the ghosts that haunt him. There are now two of them: a man and a child; and they are pointing a finger at the doctor. George is overwhelmed with terror:

“A sudden unreasoning horror of the doctor, who seemed to be the centre of such mysterious revelations, took possession of me, and I resolved that I would not lose consciousness in his presence, if by any effort I could retain it.” (Ibid.)

But as soon as the doctor leaves the club, George’s nerves get the better of him: “I heard his footsteps on the pavement outside, I fell fainting to the floor.” (Ibid.)

George Wardour is no Bruce Willis. Much could be said about the masculinity of sensational heroes. They are young, professional or at least educated men (like Robert Audley, Franklin Blake, Walter Hartright or even John Jasper) well in touch with their feminine sides. They may be athletic and fond of field sports, but they are not strangers to tingling nerves, palpitations and fainting. Much has been written about heroines of sensation fiction, but so far less of heroes. In “Sensation Fiction, Gender, Identity,” Tara McDonald first identifies flamboyant villains and easily duped husbands as typical men featured in sensation novels, but she goes on to suggest “Yet perhaps the most significant development in male characterization in the sensation genre is a third type: the amateur detective.” (in The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, Ed . by Andrew Mangham. [2013], p136).

MacDonald argues that “Playing detective, then, offers these characters tools that are vital for personal and professional fulfilment.” (Ibid.). Men who take on the role of detective in sensational narratives, do not just get the girl and, often, the country house, but they come of age through the process of detection. Sensation novels, then, can be seen as a kind of Bildungsroman for their young male protagonists.

It is essential that George faints. Throughout Driven Home, it is imperative that the hero goes through states of emotional turmoil: brain-fever, fainting, incapacitating fear, hallucinations or hauntings (depending on whether you believe in ghosts). George, like a good sensational hero, is teetering on the verge of madness. First, it is essential for the narrative that its protagonist experiences all the horror and excitement of the events vividly in order to transmit the same sensations to the reader more effectively through sympathetic osmosis. Secondly, it is also essential for the plot, so that information can be withheld (here through selective amnesia) or given (here through ghostly visitation); or to enable events to take place (here George can be moved unconscious to the mysterious doctor’s house in order to wake up to experience new horrors there).

 Once awake, the unknown power leads George to open the doctor’s notebook and discover a whole career of evil in them. He comes across a series of hideous images of medical experimentation on animals. It concludes with a picture of a child, hinting at a possible continuation of the series (Driven Home, Chapter 9). In a state of terror, George flees from Doctor Erbach’s house, which “now seemed to me a den of murder and mystery.” (Driven Home, Chapter 10). At this point in the narrative, the mystery it at its most entangled: George is labouring under some supernatural curse, Doctor Erbach is clearly evil and up to no good, the identity of Mrs Blythswood’s abusive husband is still in question, and there is a child in danger somewhere. How will George resolve all these questions? He listens to an old wife’s tale. Mrs Trewalney, whom George meets by coincidence in the woods after his mad flight (Driven Home, Chapter 10), has all the answers, it seems. In chapters eleven and twelve, we hear Mrs Trelawney’s story. Now George is certain that Doctor Erbach is evil and must be stopped. When George finds unidentified (possibly human) remains near the doctor’s house, he is convinced a crime has taken place.

The police are of no assistance to George. They laugh at him. George has no other way but to try to catch the villain himself and he sets off in pursuit. On a train he encounters an agitated young man, who tells him a story that could have come from “one of the sensational periodicals of the day” (Driven Home, Chapter 14): Doctor Erbach has had a most abrupt and brutal end. It is unexpected but, in a way, quite modern.  George experiences a great sense of relief, his ghosts depart and leave him to marry Mrs Blythswood. The remains of Doctor Erbach’s (assumed) victim disappear when a building site is cleared for a new housing estate. Sensational crimes by monstrous villains are hidden beneath modern domestic life.

Despite the clumsy supernatural elements and the bundle coincidences that provide the plot, Arkwright’s novel is clever. It remains true to its initial proclamation: in the end, there is no actual evidence to support George’s story. He cannot prove that the ghosts ever existed. Neither is there any evidence of Dr Erbach’s crime – the remains George discovers are never examined by anyone else than George. This is the metafictional twist at the end of the tale: Arkwright, the barrister, has constructed his novel in a way that all the sensational events, except for the incident at Longman’s Drift, which does have witnesses, may be wild, mad imaginings resulting from brain fever brought on by a traumatic experience. The sensational story of Driven Home may have taken place only in the narrator’s fevered imagination.

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