Friday, 13 March 2015

A Gothic Tale with the 5:30 from Clapham

Sensation Novels Condensed (1871) is a collection of short parodies written in the style of fourteen popular authors of the day.  Harte offers a quick succession of strongly flavoured snacks: intensified blasts of literary mannerisms and condensed plots. If you want to experience at a single glance the stylistic differences between these authors and their linguistic peculiarities, Harte’s parodies are a good (and a fun) place to start.

The choice of parodied authors gives a glimpse to how ‘sensation’ was understood by Harte and his audience. It is clear that sensation fiction was not limited to what we often think of as the genre of the “sensation novel:” the works of Braddon, Collins, Wood and a handful of others, in the 1860s. Several French authors are included: Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Jules Michelet, and a piece “in the French Paragraphic Style.” Adventure stories have also been chosen: by Captain R. N. Marryatt and James Fenimore Cooper. An American real-life female adventurer is parodied in “Mary McGillup. A Southern Novel after Belle Boyd; with an Introduction by G. A. S-la.”  There are three celebrated British authors: Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë. “Miss Mix by Ch-l-tte Br-nte” has “the floating corpse of a drowned woman in the foreground” (p169) and “Mr Rawjester” admits he has “confined my three crazy wives” (p189).

This array of authors suggests a loose definition of ‘a sensation novel.’ Any popular writing that thrills the senses, whether through adventure, melodrama, romance, crime, the supernatural or even the metaphysical, will do. As long as it excites the nervous system, it can be called sensational. The ‘sensation novel’ here is very much defined by the reader’s experience and the critic’s opinion. Despite all the ingredients of sensation that we tend to list as markers of the ‘sensation novel’ (bigamy, crime, strong female heroines, flamboyant villains, etc.), what Harte’s selections seems to indicate is that it is the effect on the reader that matters, everything else is just a means to that end.

Sensation Novels Condensed also includes two parodies of the more tightly defined ‘sensation novel’ genre: “Selina Sedilia by Miss M. E. B-dd-n and Mrs. H-n-y W-d” and “No Title by W-lk-e C-ll-ns.” If parody is exaggeration of principle characteristics to the extent of making them appear ridiculous, Harte’s parodies should give us an indication what he and his audience considered the principle characteristics of these sensation novels 

Selina Sedilia” opens when “The sun was setting over Sloperton Grange,” the ancestral seat where every part is haunted by an ancient Sedilia (p9), just as “an aristocratic young man” called Edgardo arrives to see Lady Selina (p10).

“Leave me, Edgardo! Leave me!  A mysterious something – a fatal misgiving – a dark ambiguity – an equivocal mistrust oppresses me.” Lady Selina exclaims. (p11) And Edgardo departs with the words: “Then we will be married on the 17th.” (p12)

The setting is aristocratic and Gothic, like Audley House or East Lynne with ghosts added for atmosphere. The characters have foreign names, suggesting Italy or Spain, a sultry southern climate. Lady Selina’s words are suitably melodramatic and she piles on the undefined sense of an approaching doom, with a quartet of clichés. The mannerism of expressing the same idea multiple times with different words is used for emphasis throughout this parody (see the quote below). Edgardo’s farewell introduces the romance and the family: they are to be married.  After the lovers separate, Lady Selina laments:

“Ah! – what if he should know that I have another husband living? Dare I reveal to him that I have two legitimate and three natural children? Dare I repeat to him the history of my youth? Dare I confess that at the age of seven I poisoned my sister by putting verdigris in her cream-tarts – that I threw my cousin from the swing at the age of twelve? That the lady’s-maid who uncured the displeasure of my girlhood now lies at the bottom of the horsepond? No! no! he is too pure – too good – too innocent,  to hear such improper conversation.” (p12)

But of course, Edgardo has his own dark past, as we learn through his monologue:

“Yet if she knew all. If she knew that I were a disgraced and ruined man – a felon and an outcast. If she knew that at the age of fourteen I murdered my Latin tutor and forged my uncle’s will. If she knew that I had three wives already, and that the fourth victim of misplaced confidence and my unfortunate peculiarity is expected to be at Sloperton by tonight’s train with her baby.” (pp16-7)

Now we have thrown in all the stock sensations of bigamy, adultery, murder, poison, felony and, of course, a forged will. I want to say a word about verdigris – this green build-up on old copper seemed like an odd choice for a seven-year-old to use as a murder weapon. Verdigris was used as a pigment for green paint, so perhaps this is where Lady Selina got it. However, I also discovered that it was used for medical purposes, particularly to ease symptoms of venereal diseases, as we learn from Franklin Blache’s From a System of Chemistry for the Use of Students of Medicine (1819):

Neither of the two aristocratic lovers in “Selina Sedilia” are quite what they seem, and both are hiding potentially devastating secrets. Harte has not just piled on all the possible dramatic props of a sensation story, but he has also created a situation with the kind of narrative tension found in sensation novels: both the hero and the heroine consider each other “too pure” and too respectable to face the improprieties (to put it mildly) each one has committed in the past. The respectable surface is very precarious and about to be shattered by the arrival of “the 5:30 train from Clapham” (p17).

Harte quickly adds blackmail, attempted murder, a professional criminal Burke the Slogger linked to murder, robbery and “the making away of the youngest daughter of Sir Reginald de Walton (p17),  and a body “hanging on the cow-catcher” of the train (p20). He then wraps up the story with an explosion in a mine under the western tower of Sloperton Grange which also destroys the parish church housing the parish records.

“Selina Sedilia” is about sex (as represented by marriages, a mistress and various children) and crime (past and present). Women play the main roles. The youngest daughter of the eponymous heroine causes the explosion that brings the story to its end. The arrival of Edgardo’s wronged mistress with her child triggers the events.  It is worth noting that there are no innocent characters in this story: the heroine and the hero both harbour dark secrets of guilt, both plot crimes to secure their marriage. There is an outrageous lack of morality.

In terms of its setting and the tone of the narrative, the story is not far from Gothic tales like The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe.  There is a haunted castle with underground tunnels and children locked up in a tower.  The foreign names and the characters' aristocratic pedigree carry an echo of Emile Gaboriau. It is interesting to note that “Selina Sedilia” has a much more Gothic and a much more foreign feel than the works by Braddon and Wood it parodies. And yet, the familiar train (although equipped with an American “cow-catcher”) creates a sense of proximity – a Gothic tale with a ludicrous helping of domestic crime and a train connection from Clapham.

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