Saturday, 14 January 2017

"Sublime Constancy" vs Internal Conflict - Smythies's Characterization

Victorian popular fiction, plot-driven and fast-moving, is not celebrated for its deep characters with meaningful internal lives. Instead it seeks to use short-cuts to quickly establish serviceable characters. Acquitted utilizes a couple of these shortcuts.

Singular and stereotypical names give characters individuality, not only to separate them from other characters but also to remind the reader about the nature or role of the character in the narrative. Dickens, of course, does this extremely well. Mrs Gordon Smythies, too, is quite good with names. Mary Lynn is an unpretentious name for a heroine, with clear links to virginal purity and goodness. It is also socially ambiguous: fisherman’s daughter Mary can secretly be Lady Mary – her foster-mother would find it harder to convince us she could transform herself effortlessly into ‘Lady Polly,’ with a name associated more strongly with working class. The names of the male characters Paul Penryn and Jasper Ardennes, too, reflect the characters’ social standing. It is not difficult to guess which one of these characters is a reliable, honest land-owner’s son and which one is a young, consumptive, other-worldly aristocrat. The villains have suitable names too: Dan Devrill is close to the Devil in name and in nature, while Sligo Downy has a name that sounds smooth and elusive like the con-man’s character, with a blatantly racist Irish connection added in.

Throughout Acquitted, Smythies uses memorable and dramatic introductory portraits to establish her characters;. Smythies introduces Dan Devrill by telling us what kind of a man he is:

"This fellow, Dan Devrill by name, was a wife-beating, Sabbath-breaking, drunken wretch, more than suspected of being both a burglar and a wrecker."  (Acquitted, Vol 1, Chapter 3)

This is a typical character description by Smythies: she often throws a volley of adjectives and a list of descriptors to make sure the reader gets a strong flavour of the character she is introducing. Another example is her introduction of young Lord Derwent, when he was still known as Jasper Ardennes (a name shared by his consumptive son):

"Jasper was a 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 free-thinker."  (Acquitted, Vol 1, Chapter 3).

A special feature cam be used to single out the character, whether psychological or physical Smythies first describes the teenage Mary in terms of her outward appearance:
(Acquitted,Vol 1, Chapter 15)

Mary appears exotically Gothic with her thinness, pale skin and dark hair.  (Note the full brow – we have a hairy heroine). Smythies does not make a gender distinction in her descriptions. Male and female characters are equally introduced using either their appearance or their habits. (See portraits of Henry Trelawny in Vol 1, Chapter 3), Rhoda Cottrell in Vol. 2, Chapter 9 and Lady Derwent in Vol.3, Chapter 8).

As there is not much room wasted on character development in popular novels, it is even more important that characters remain consistent (stay in character) to retain their plausibility. As a small child Paul Penryn shows generosity for those worse off:
  (Acquitted, Volume 1, Chapter 8)

When his fellow clerk Fisk is locked up in debtors’ prison, Paul, at the age of nineteen, displays the same Christian charity:  “I cannot believe you can be so mean as to …”
(Acquitted, Volume 3, Chapter 2)

Too much consistency can backfire. Paul is so invariably upright that he makes a very boring hero. He faces the wonderful dilemma of whether to pursue love (Mary) or money (Rhoda Cottrell). Paul never hesitates and stays true to Mary, despite his desperate need to earn money. In fact he is never tempted to stray from the virtuous path of hard work and loyalty for his father, his sweetheart and his employer. He is quite simply lacking the one critical characteristic all fictional characters should have in order to come alive: internal conflict. Mary Lynn is another flat character. Minna is concerned when Mary is first invited to spend a day at the Castle with Lord Derwent’s children:

"... is it not a perilous thing for her to go wghere captivating, elegant, and heartless men abound?" (Acquitted, Vol 1, Chapter 19).

Despite all the lures and temptations hinted at here (none materialize in the narrative) and of her being lifted above her apparent station as a fisherman’s daughter to be employed as a sub-governess and later as a companion to Lord Derwent’s children, Mary remains pure and humble – not once does she experience a thought unworthy of her virginal namesake. All characters in Acquitted suffer from the same laboured, consistent flatness.  At first, you struggle to find a single internal conflict in the novel’s cast of characters. Mrs Smythies comes closest to success in characterization with Lord Derwent: a thoroughly wicked man with the redeeming feature of love for his son, Jasper.

The most interesting development in Smythies’s characters in Acquitted comes with the apparent conflict between the stated aspirations of the female characters and their actions. This can be termed an internal conflict, although one that the characters themselves remain oblivious to.

Describing Minna’s return to be Lord Derwent’s lawful wife, the narrator talks to us about the supportive submissiveness and endurance of good women:
(Acquitted, Vol 3, Chapter 17)

Minna becomes to her husband:

“his guiding star, his counsellor, his constant companion and friend – all that woman can be when she fulfils to the uttermost all the duties – the love-prompted duties – of a true wife.” (Acquitted, Vol 3, Chapter 18).

The actions of the female characters reveal something quite different. The timing of Minna’s decision to reclaim her place as Lord Derwent’s wife (mentioned previously) hints at this: the women in Acquitted appear to be a bunch of submissive women, but their actions and reactions reveal a rebellious streak.

Minna, a wild Vicar’s daughter who entered into a secret marriage when still a school-girl and then eloped with her husband to India, at the end of the novel claims the title of Countess of Altamount and regains a weakened, obedient husband after he has gone through a bout of madness brought on by grief for the loss of his son (Ibid.).

Mary, a fisherman’s adopted daughter and sub-governess becomes Lady Mary, without any apparent problems of adjusting to the change. She is able to marry her penniless childhood sweet-heart Paul Penryn, as she can now provide the family wealth. She brushes aside Paul’s protestations about their changed circumstances, refers without hesitations to the noble house of Altamount as “our house” and threatens Paul with legal action if he refuses to marry her: 

"Often, in olden time, the Penryns have wedded members of our house; I have heard you say so yourself. ... Paul, don't compel me to sue you for a breach of promise!" (Acquitted, Vol 3, Chapter 17).

Polly Lynn, a bereaved fisherman’s wife and mother, has throughout the novel coerced her husband to carry on with the deception of bringing up Mary as their own.

Barbara Devrill is Dan Devrill’s abused and abandoned wife (Acquitted, Vol 1, Chapter 13):
(Acquitted, Vol 1, Chapter 4)

She turns her life around, takes the kids and moves to work at the vicarage to start a new, better life (Acquitted, Vol 1, Chapter 13). She confronts her husband, brandishing a revolver:
(Acquitted, Vol 1, Chapter 14 – 2nd – in the Tinsley Brothers’ 1870 edition there are two chapters numbered 14 in Volume 1). 

Lady Derwent, Lord Derwent’s second, bigamous wife, described as a “virago” (Acquitted, Vol 3, Chapter 17) retires to Paris and marries “a young French count,” who turns out to be “one of the worst and most extravagant of the modern French school of fast men” (Ibid.).

Rhoda Cottrell, the spoiled daughter of the self-made businessman, who hoped to marry penniless Paul Penryn for love, marries besotted and rich Lord Snowdon instead and moves up the social scale (Acquitted, Vol 3, Chapter 16).

The narrative explicitly depicts women that conform to the norms; particularly, they are good wives, loyal and subservient. And yet, they make the important decisions, pursue their goals and by doing this stipulate much of the plot in the story. It is almost traditional in studies of sensation fiction to show how a narrative simultaneously illustrates the prevailing Victorian social values and subverts them, especially in relation to gender norms. Acquitted does not disappoint on this score.