Friday, 13 January 2017

Timely Deaths Save the Honour of the Heroine

Volume 2 of Acquitted takes place 18 years after the opening chapters and moves the action from Cornwall to London. Mary is still the childhood sweet-heart of Paul Penryn, who is not the central character in the novel. He finds out how Sligo Downy so wickedly relieved Mr Penryn of his assets through a simple mistake of letters switched in their envelopes:

(Acquitted, Vol. 3, Chapter 2).

Paul feels compelled to restore his father’s honour. He gives up on any plans to go to university and takes a job in London to earn money. He is employed by Mr Cottrell, a self-made man with an import-export business of some unspecified kind and a large accounting house. Fortunately, Mary is in London, too. She is a nurse-companion to Jasper Ardennes, who is slowly dying of consumption. Paul, Mary and Jasper all become good friends.

Acquitted has one significant subplot: Paul’s career in London and his relationship with Mr Cottrell and his daughter Rhoda, who falls in love with Paul (Acquitted, Vol. 2, Chapter 9). Although this occupies much of volume 2, it does not contribute to the main plot and opportunities are missed. The love triangle of Rhoda, Paul and Mary is not used: Paul rejects Rhoda promptly in a gentlemanly fashion (Acquitted, Vol 3, Chapter 11).

There is also the potential love triangle of Mary, Jasper and Paul, but again, Paul is too good a man to allow the plot to make much of this. Once and only once does Paul experience a pang of jealousy (Acquitted, Vol 2, Chapter 5). Mary assures him:

“I could never love him as a woman ought to love the man she marries. He is younger than I am, and somehow I cannot look up to him.” (Ibid.)

This is enough for Paul and from now on, with Jasper’s fading health, Paul only feels pity and love for him. Thus, Smythies lets marvellous potential for plot tension and twists to slip through her fingers. Romantic entanglements are clearly not what she is interested in.

Instead of focusing on the romantic lead characters, the narrative develops curious tangents. We get a lively portrait of the life of young clerks in the counting house. There is an amusing episode with fashionable, tight boots that casts Paul in the role of Cinderella with his fellow-clerks Brymer and Fisk as the ugly sisters (Acquitted, Vol 2, Chapter 10), with Rhoda Cottrell presumably as the prince. A whole chapter is devoted to Paul examining the statues in St Paul’s cathedral and giving us a meditation on heroes of the British Empire: Samuel Johnson; Nelson; John Howard, the philanthropist and Reginald Heber, Lord Bishop of Calcutta. In the end, Lord Derwent arrives, invited Paul to dinner and heads off to visit a statue of his ancestor “Lord Rodney” (Acquitted, Vol 2, Chapter 12). Is this an illustration of a social gap between Paul Penryn and Lord Derwent? Or is this an ironic comment on Paul being closer in spirit to the imperial heroes, while Lord Derwent is a degenerate offspring of a morally heroic ancestor? Paul’s attempts to earn money by writing for the Cheapside magazine take up two chapters with no link to the rest of the novel (Acquitted, Vol 2, Chapters 3 and 11); this is the author having a dig at the periodicals industry. There is a loose end of plotting in Volume 1, where much is made of local politics, with the election of the local MP imminent (Acquitted, Vol 1, Chapter 10). This plot line is completely abandoned in the rest of the novel, and it may well mark the four-year break in the writing process.

The plot devices that propel the story of Acquitted forward are neatly linked to the central theme of the novel, which is shame. Shame and the sense of being judged both by one’s own conscience and by surrounding community motivate characters’ actions. Minna’s secret marriage to Lord Derwent, that resulted in the birth of Mary, and her subsequent flight from him generate her shame and give Minna the motivation first to hide and then to reveal the truth. Minna’s survival in the shipwreck generates Lord Derwent’s shame and his plot to get rid of Minna. Mr Penryn’s greed and loss of a fortune generates the Penryns’ family shame, and this gives Paul motivation to restore the money, in a classic quest to right a wrong.

These motivations appear largely logical and plausible, except for Minna’s decision to hide in the vicarage for 18 years and wait for Lord Derwent’s father, Earl of Altamount to die before revealing the secret of her existence and triggering the resolution of the plot. This is the structural weak point of the whole fictional edifice built by Mrs Gordon Smythies. Two secrets must come to light for the novel to have its resolution: Minna must discover that Mary is her daughter – the reader of course has figured this out from the start, and Minna must make her presence known to the community. The first secret leads to probably the most spectacular and sensational scene of the whole novel towards the end of Volume 3 (Acquitted, Volume 3, Chapter 16), where Dan Devrill, the resident evil of the novel, makes his final appearance. The second secret is not handled quite so well.
Lord Derwent worries when his father falls ill:

(Acquitted, Vol. 3, Chapter 4). He hatches a plan to have Minna removed to Vaneck’s private madhouse in Rotterdam (Ibid.). A little later, he comes across Minna in her favourite “bower” by the coast and asks her to keep her existence secret for Jasper’s sake: