Thursday, 30 April 2015

Metafictional Sensation - Harte's Parody of Wilkie Collins

 “No Title by W-lk-e C-ll-ns” by Bret Harte is an urban mystery (Collins’s No Name was published in 1862). The story opens with three newspaper clippings that “appeared in The Times on the 17th of June 1845.” (p198) From the start, the story takes place in a world familiar to its (American) readers (as they imagined Britain to be?). And from the start the story presents them with a challenge: 

“To find the connection between the mysterious disappearances of the elderly gentleman and the anonymous communication, the relevancy of both of these incidents to the letting of a commodious family mansion, and the dead secret involved in the three occurrences, is the task of the writer of this history.” (p199)

The parody makes fun of Collins’s favoured method of multiple first-person narratives consciously emulating witness statements. The first narrative belongs to Mary Jones:  “I am upper housemaid …” (p200). It is followed by “The Slim Young Man’s Story:” “I am by profession a reporter …” (p204). After this we have an interval of mysterious happenings at “No 27 Limehouse Road.” The story culminates in “Count Moscow’s Narrative:” “I am a foreigner. Observe! To be a foreigner in England is to be mysterious, suspicious, intriguing.” (p210), followed by “Dr Digg’s Statement” on medical matters (p213). The story concludes with the “Statement of the Publisher” and a meta-fictional twist: “On the 18th of June Mr Wilkie Collins left a roll of manuscript with us for publication … since which time he has not been heard from.” (p215)

Collins himself made much of his innovative narrative technique; at the start of his ‘Preface’ to The Woman in White in 1860, he writes: “An experiment is attempted in this novel, which has not (so far as I know) been hitherto tried in fiction. The story of the book is told throughout by the characters of the book. They are all placed in different positions along the chain of events ….”

Collins said of this narrative method that it both “forced me to keep the story constantly moving forward; and it has afforded my characters a new opportunity of expressing themselves …” The multiple internal narrators have the same impact in Harte’s parody: the story gallops on jumping gleefully over any gaping chasms in the narrative logic and the widely differing styles of expression let Harte parody a range of stock characters in sensation fiction. Harte also uses some additional tricks that this narrative method facilitates.

The first narrative snippet gives voice to Mary Jones, the housemaid, who, by her own admission, does not know much:

“I have been requested to tell my story in my own langwidge [sic.] … I think my master is a brute. Do not know that he has ever attempted to poison my missus. .. Do not know whether he ever forged a will or tried to get my missus’s property. … Cannot say whether my master and missus were ever legally married. … Do not know of any lovers missus might have had. … Have never seen arsenic or Prussian acid in any of the private drawers, but have seen paregoric and camphor.” (pp200-203)

Harte parodies the central role of servants in sensation fiction. Sensation novels famously brought the literature of the kitchen into the drawing room, and they also successfully mixed characters of different social classes on their pages. Servants, ever present and intimately knowledgeable about their employers’ foibles and sins, are powerful characters in sensation novels. However, it is worth noting that we do not often find them in the position of a narrator. Even when servants play an important role in a story, say Lady Audley’s maid Phoebe, they do not very often get to tell the story.  In The Woman in White (which Harte is parodying) Collins includes “The Housekeeper’s Narrative” as well as second hand testimonies of Hester Pinhorn, Count Fosco's cook, and Fanny, Lady Glyde's maid.

Equally noteworthy is how through a long list of denials Harte manages to introduce a whole host of sensational ideas into the reader’s head.  It is not clear whether these ideas originate in Mary Jones’s own imagination or they are answers to suggestive questions put to her. There is no reason to think that any of the mentioned immoralities have actually taken place, but by simply denying any knowledge of any of them, Mary Jones’s statement creates their possibility and a suspicion in the reader’s imagination.

The “Slim, Young man,” is an interesting version of another stock character of sensation fiction: the heroic amateur detective. This role usually goes to a young relative and/or a young professional man often with a romantic interest in the heroine (Franklin Blake, Walter Hartright, Robert Audley all come to mind).  This time, the detective character is semi-professional, a news-hound with an interest in the sensational: “I live in Putneyville. I have always had a passion for the marvellous, and have been distinguished for my facility in tracing out mysteries, and solving enigmatical occurrences.” (p204) The “Slim Young Man” has a mysterious meeting with “an elderly gentleman” (p205). Later, he stalks a house at “No 27 Limehouse Road” and notes down a strange code written on the fence: “S-T-1860-X” (p209). If you can decode this, please let me know.

There is no professional policeman in “No Title.” Despite the appearance of Inspector Bucket on the scene in 1852 when Dickens’s Bleak House was first serialized, in the early 1860s it was still perhaps too early for Harte to see the police detective as a common character in sensation fiction. “No Title” was penned before the arrival of Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone (1868) and before the genre of detective fiction started to emerge from the sensation novel.

The character of Count Moscow, a friend of Mary Jones’s “brute” of a master and, according to her “a Russian papist” (p203) bursts off the page in an explosion of verbal fireworks, much like his flamboyant and (literally) larger-than-life model,  Count Fosco. Like Fosco, Moscow is a master of words and drugs, in equal measure, and he uses both to manipulate his victims:

“I write with ease and fluency. Why should I not write? Tra la la! I am what you English call corpulent. Ha ha! I am a pupil of Machiavelli. (p210) … People call me a villain – bah! (p211) … I hinted to him he had another wife living. I suggested that this was balanced – ha! – by his wife’s lover. … That he regularly beat his wife in the English manner, and that she repeatedly deceived him. … I carelessly produced a bottle of strychnine and a small vial of stramonium from my pocket, and enlarged on the efficiency of drugs.” (p212)

Moscow’s narrative is peppered with poisons, sex and violence, secrets and deception. It is saturated with sensation. Strychnine is a familiar poison, but what is ‘stramonium’? According to Pears’ Shilling Cyclopedia (1910 edition), this “common wild herb” smoked like cigarettes to ease asthma and whose seeds are used against rheumatism, “is a substance, the use of which may make more mischief than it can correct, and so should not be used unless prescribed.” A most useful substance, then, for a villain like Count Moscow.

Moscow’s narrative if followed by a dry, medical statement by Dr Digg – medical conditions, drugs and medical opinions are naturally important in sensation fiction, after all, this is fiction that aims to impact the sympathetic nervous system.  While Count Moscow excites, Dr Digg has a calming influence: “Tinct. Val., Ext. Opii, and Camphor, and prescribed quiet and emollients.” (p214).

The drugs Harte has slipped into his narrative parody the numerous medical substances featured in Collins’s narratives, who himself consumed these products on an almost industrial scale.
As a parody should, Harte’s “No Title” takes Collins’s narrative method used in The Woman in White and later in The Moonstone, one step further and tips it into meta-fiction. These novels, structured as compliations of witness statements collected and arranged by the male heroes have a level of textual self-awareness. Harte’s makes this explicit and takes it to the extreme, when he ends his parody with the "Statement of the Publisher":

“… it is feared that the continuity of the story has been destroyed by some accidental misplacing of chapters during its progress. How and what chapters are so misplaced, the publisher leaves to an indulgent public to discover.” (p215). 

The mystery of “No Title” is a textual mystery more than a sexual or a criminal one: the challenge is to make sense of the text. The reader is very firmly put in the place of the detective and in this way, is drawn to actively participate in the story. The tale will not work, unless the reader does her part.

From the twenty-first-century perspective, Braddon, Wood and Collins are usually lumped together as the three ‘classics’ of Victorian sensation fiction. If nothing else, Harte’s parodies demonstrate how wrong this is. The fiction of Wood and Braddon are combined in the same parody “Selina Sedilia,” which has many features of a more traditional melodrama and the Gothic novel. This story seems to be harking back to traditions of earlier fiction.

Collins’s work parodied in “No Title” is seen as something much more innovative and modern.  It seems to be looking towards the future and exploring a new sense of itself as fiction. Both parodies contain the key ingredients of sensation: sex, love, crime, family relationships, money. “Selina Sedilia” reminds us of a fairy tale with its castle, aristocratic lovers and supernatural elements. “No Title” has more proximity. It may have a melodramatic villain, but it also has science, journalism and familiar people (a house maid and a medical doctor).  Most of all, “No Title” is modern and reminds us how innovative Collins's writing was; it displays awareness of itself as a piece of sensational fiction.