Friday, 22 January 2016
Acquitted is set in Cornwall, in a small coastal community. The cast of characters ranges from Dan Devrill a wrecker and a career criminal to the local Earl of Altamount and his heir Lord Derwent – note the similarity in the names at the opposite ends of the social spectrum. In between, we have a poor but honest fisherman’s family; a vicar of the muscular Christianity variety and a soft-headed and –hearted local squire. There is also a flamboyant villain. Overall, there is a promising set of characters for all kinds of dramatic interactions, both romantic and financial.
The story opens with a dramatic thunderstorm with Natt Lynn, a fisherman and “Polly, his pretty, tidy little wife.” (Acquitted, Chapter 1). During the stormy night their baby daughter dies. The next morning Natt sets off to arrange for a coffin but comes across a shipwreck and finds a “female infant” (Acquitted, Chapter 2). Natt carries the baby to his bereaved wife and saves Polly’s life or at least her sanity by giving her another baby to replace her dead one. Meanwhile, at the other end of the local shoreline strides the Rev. Henry Trelawny: “He promoted wrestling, leaping, running, swimming &c, in all of which exercises he was himself pre-eminent. Henry Trelawny was a thoroughly good, but not perhaps a very amiable man. (Acquitted, Chapter 3) Trelawny is waiting for the arrival of his “only daughter on her way from India.” (Ibid.) Minna Trelawny’s sad story is summed up with admirable efficacy:
At sixteen, Minna met The Hon. Jasper Ardennes, the younger son of the Earl of Altamount. He was “singularly handsome , elegant in his dress and manners, quick, clever, and eloquent, but he was cruel, crafty, and resolute. He pretended to be religious, but at heart he was a scoffer, a doubter, a freethinker.” (Ibid.) He is good villain material, no doubt. At twenty-one Minna eloped with Jasper to India. And two years later, Henry Trelawny received a letter from Calcutta, informing him that Minna was sailing home and was pleading her father to “come to your miserable, heart-broken, penitent, Minna, and help her to hide from a cruel and remorseless persecutor.” (Ibid.)
The shipwreck Natt Lynn found is the The Golden Bengal that was carrying Minna and her young daughter. Henry Trelawny rescues Minna from the clutches of Dan Devrill, “a wife-beating, Sabbath-breaking, drunken wretch, more than suspected of being both a burglar and a wrecker.” (Ibid.) Devrill was planning on stealing Minna’s jewellery. Henry Trelawny’s attack, even before he realized the identity of Devrill’s victim, is violent in the extreme:
“With a wild bound, and a wilder shout, he seized the wrecker by the collar, and, with the herculean strength of his powerful arm, increased tenfold by the excitement of the moment, he dragged the wretch from the spot, and dashed him against the rocks, at the base of which he fell stunned and bleeding. His savage face had struck against a projecting angle of the rock, levelling his nose with his cheeks, and the hideous gash that crossed that bad countenance must leave a frightful scar there through all his after life.” (Acquitted, Chapter 3).
As years pass, Mary, the foundling baby grows up at the fisherman’s cottage as their eldest daughter. But she stands out: “No one can look at it and not see it were meant to be a great lady. Them hands ain’t shaped for hard work” (Acquitted, Chapter 7). After an initial bout of brain-fever brought on by the loss of her child, Minna lives quietly in the vicarage under an assumed identity “She spent her time in reading, praying, working for the poor, and wandering.” (Acquitted, Chapter 7). She is drawn to the fisherman’s children and is particularly fond of Mary.
Mrs Gordon Smythies is writing for an experienced audience. A foundling baby and a woman with a lost child rescued after the same shipwreck does not leave much room for doubt. However, Mrs Smythies finds an ingenious and exotic way of confirming the reader’s suspicions without letting the characters in the novel figure out the truth. When first washing and dressing the baby, Polly Lynn discovers a tattoo: “just below the left breast the letters M.A., surmounted by an earl’s coronet, and beneath was a date April 2, 18—” (Acquitted, chapter 12). A little later, we learn that Minna’s baby has a tattoo exactly like that because “Lolah, its silly ayah … consulted an Indian seer about its destiny” and followed the advice to ensure that the baby could be identified “in afterlife” (Acquitted, Chapter 14). As long as Mary keeps her stays laced up and her left breast covered, the secret of her birth will remain hidden, even from her own mother.
Dan Devrill begins to suspect that the woman he attacked and Henry Trelawny rescued is Minna. This gives him a business opportunity: “It would be worth a good round sum to find out what’s become of she, if so be she wor the vicar’s daughter. Cos vy? I’ve met him, but in forrin parts, and he’s married again! … When I met him spliced again, I told him I warn’t sure his first wife had gone to the bottom. Lor, he turned as white as a curd, but wouldn’t believe it, and flew in a rage, for he’ve got three brats by his present partner, …” (Acquitted, Chapter 16). Devrill outlines his dastardly business plan to his wife Barbara: “five thousand pound … to keep the secret and get her quietly out of the way.” (Ibid). Thanks to Henry Trelawny’s bad conscience about beating up Devrill and his general sense of philanthropy, Barbara now has a job at the vicarage as Minna’s maid and confidante. She has to negotiate the tricky tightrope of marital duty to her husband and her loyalty to her benefactors and employers.
Paul Penryn, the son of a local landowner, hovers on the pages as Mary’s love-interest-in-waiting. His father, the somewhat impractical and soft-hearted Mr Penryn is targeted by the professional villain of the piece, called Sligo Downy “a bill-discounter … a great and daring public speculator.” (Acquitted, Chapter 8). This plot strand promises future financial drama perhaps linked to matrimony.
The opening chapters (1-17) set up a good sensational main plot for the story: with Minna hiding from her bigamous husband in the vicarage and their daughter, presumed dead, being brought up by a local fisherman’s family. Dan Devrill is stalking the vicarage to prove Minna’s identity in order to blackmail her husband and to secure a contract on Minna’s life.