Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Sensation Novel as a Model for Story-Telling

Driven Home: A Tale of Destiny (1886) is neatly packaged into a single volume of fourteen chapters. This reflects the emergence of a new, tighter novel format and a move away from the rambling three-deckers. Single volume novels were much more practical. When you borrowed a book from Mudie’s Circulating Library or purchased it from W. H Smith’s railway bookstall, you got the whole story in a single wrapping. There was no need to go hunting for further installments (as I will have to do with the second volume of The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery).

There were also aesthetic and artistic influences at work in the changing format of the novel. By the 1880s, one can discern the idea of a novel as a coherent piece of literary art. Questions of narrative structure and narrative techniques had become matters of literary theory. Novel as an art form was developing its own methodology and critical vocabulary. More and more novels were published in book-form from the start and no longer as re-prints of serialized originals. Readers now had an appetite for entire novels, rather than reading by installment. This had as much to do with the changing taste (and education levels) of the public, as the developing market for literature. For a detailed analysis of the social history of the novel format, see Peter Keating’s The Haunted Study (1989).

Arkwright’s Driven Home, then, is a sensation novel in a ‘modern,’ single-volume format. Chapters one and two introduce the protagonist and set the scene. Chapters three to seven give us an exotic adventure in a foreign land which leads unexpectedly to the main mystery. Right in the middle of the novel, in chapter six, comes the critical crunch point, which propels the story to a new direction. The unravelling of the mystery takes place through chapters eight to fourteen. The novel has a clear plot arc. It follows to an almost ridiculous degree the ‘archetypal’ story structure put forward by John Yorke in Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them (Penguin, 2013). In the first half of the novel, protagonist George journeys out to an alien world. A critical event takes place there, he is changed as a result. In the second half of the story, George journeys back home, he is ‘driven home,’ and finds resolution and closure only when he is able to reconcile and integrate the consequences of the critical event into his life and self. Into this simple and straightforward structural framework, Arkwright builds his sensation story.

George is brought up by his mirthless aunt in a gloomy, old house in Chiswick. From the start, George suspects that his origins are tragic: “I must have had in my veins the blood of some wild and reckless being, perhaps some cruel and pitiless criminal.” (Driven Home, Chapter 1) As expected in a sensation novel, these turn out to be not just romantic musings of a lonely child with too much energy and imagination. On her deathbed, George’s aunt makes the revelation: “You are George Wardour, the only child of Geroge Wardour, the poisoner.” (Driven Home, Chapter, 1) The family tragedy is dispensed with in a couple of sentences: “His wretched wife, who stole him from me, deserted him …” (Ibid.) This sounds promising, but nothing comes of it. The whole purpose of George’s sensational parentage is, it would seem, to establish his flawed nature: he is a fundamentally good man with a wild streak and a moral weakness. His failings are explained as hereditary traits. George has an internal demon, like all good tragic heroes. Arkwright is here creating a promising protagonist, even if with great haste and clumsiness.

George Wardour the elder’s “victims were two orphans, whom he had induced to insure their lives” (Ibid.). Life insurance featured as a motive in two infamous Victorian murder cases, those of William Palmer the Rugeley Poisoner in 1855 and of Mrs Mary Ann Cotton in 1873. Closer in time to Driven Home, were the trials of Catherine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins in Liverpool in 1884. They appear to have run a whole business of poisoning victims and cashing in their life insurances. The stories of Palmer and Cotton as summarized by Judith Flanders in The Invention of Murder (2011) and there is a book by Angela Brabin dedicated to Flanagan and Higgins: The Black Widows of Liverpool: A Chilling Account of Cold-Blooded Murder in Victorian Liverpool (2003). Many Victorian cases of poisoning remain suspect. Medicines of the period tended to be lethal, toxicological tests were inadequate and the verdicts were often based purely on circumstantial evidence. George Wardour may have been convicted as a poisoner, but his guilt is by no means certain if the reported real Victorian criminal cases are anything to go by. George the younger, however, accepts his father’s guilt without question and decides to leave England never to return (Driven Home, Chapter 1).

George boards a ship heading to San Francisco. He is going to join the gold rush. Gold was discovered in California in 1849. The gold rush peaked in 1852 although the hopeful miners and prospectors kept digging for the rest of the 1850s (the Klondike gold rush came along in the 1890s).
The first part of Driven Home tells of George’s adventures in the California gold fields. On board the ship on the way out there (Driven Home, Chapter 2), we learn more about George’s character. He excels in physical activities, whether it is climbing the rigging of the ship or “the pugilistic art.” He discovers his talent for entertainment by song and story-telling, and notes his “new and insatiable love for notice and appreciation.” (Ibid.). This is in contrast to his lonely and constrained childhood. The image of a young man let loose on the wider world and off on an adventure is believable. We can understand George’s enthusiasm. For him, “Every moment now seemed worth living.” (Ibid.) At the same time, Captain Maitland warns George: “you have three implacable enemies:” Don Carlos, drinking and gambling. (Ibid.)
In America, George teams up with the dubious gold digger and gambler Carlos he befriended on board the ship. They also invite along Mike O’Callaghan, a large Irishman with a sweetheart waiting at home (Driven Home, Chapter 3). After running out of money in San Francisco, they finally head to the Sierra Nevada mountains to look for gold. Here, George begins to experience a strange feeling of “a power other than my own” influencing his choices (Driven Home, Chapter 4).

This early  appearance of a vague supernatural force appears to break the logic of the novel. Later in the narrative, we know why George is haunted by an unknown power and it makes sense. There is no logical explanation for it here. This is significant, because for a reader who expects a narrative of sensational events that nevertheless remain within the limits of plausibility, this inexplicable meddling of supernatural forces in the narrative is dissatisfying. For a reader accustomed to premonitions, spiritual guidance and fingerprints of God all over traditional melodramatic narratives, this is perfectly acceptable. At this point, Arkwright's novel shows up a fault-line between the old and the new in Victorian story-telling. What would be completely out of place in a detective story, can just about be tolerated in a sensation novel, and would be considered quite ordinary in a traditional melodrama.

The first time the supernatural agent makes an appearance, it leads to George's benefit (Driven Home, Chapter 5). "But, for the second time, this same strange, inexplicable sensation that I had formerly experienced came upon me," (Driven Home, Chapter 6) it leads to tragedy.

George’s journey to California reaches a horrific climax at Longman’s Drift in Chapter 6. George is a recipient of a dying speech of a mysterious Englishman and a witness to a lynching. While the first scene is a satisfying development in a sensational plot and points to further drama, the latter scene is truly disturbing in its violence and would not be out of place in a penny dreadful. This is a well-placed, high-octane chapter which both propels the narrative forward and gives the reader a thrilling jolt of sensation. No wonder George says: “On the horror of these moments I dare not dwell” (Driven Home, Chapter 6) and develops an amnesia that is critical to the rest of the plot.