Lucinda Elliot

Albert Zuckerman: ‘What counts in judging a character for the reader is limited to what we actually see the character do, as opposed to what is said about him.’

The quote is, of course, from Zuckerman’s book ‘Writing the Block Buster Novel’. It is made with reference to a certain Don Corleone. Zuckerman is showing how Puzo makes him sympathetic.

That general advice is very good, but I was particularly fascinated by this quote in particular, as it is so astute, and explains an attitude on the part of many readers where they seem to discount anything that contrasts with their – often blinkered – view of some character that they find admirable.

It certainly holds with countless anti-heroes inhistorical romances, for instance,, who are described as libertines. The reader is spared from descriptions of the hero’s worst excesses or acts of heartlessness, and treated to signs that whatever people say about him and his attitude towards women before he met the heroine, she has evoked a diffferent response from him than the inevitable contemptuous lust.

It is useful for all sorts of morally ambiguous individuals, of course. If a decent mist of obscurity can hang over their former misdeeds, well – it’s easy to put them out of mind or to dismiss them as exaggerated, or – that convenient excuse – ‘based on hearsay’ . I can think of various classic novels where the authors use this device, whether consciously or otherwise,

Rinaldo Rinaldini, of course, is a ‘terrible robber captain’. He is also a stereotypical Latin lover, and while we see him doing various good things, we don ‘t actually, see him commit many acts of violence and brutality. For instance, he rescues the gypsy girl Roselia from the woman who treats her as a slave, giving her the choice of either staying with him or going off on her own (Roselia, already infatuated, chooses to stay with him,with unfortunate results for her). He also rescues the woman he worships as a pure object of worship, Aurelia, from the husband who has been abusing her. Oddly, it is never shown why she doesn’t complain of her husband’s abuse to her uncle, who aftter all married her off to him.

Earlier, he made determined plans to abduct her on her way to her wedding. As these plans are foiled, it isn’t made clear whether he would have forced her to come with him if she had proved unwilling, and the reader is never told whether he plans to rape her or not. How far this was due to the censorship of the age, I don’t know. For all I know, there may at that time hae been a censorship on vivid descriptions of violence in novels, too. Certainly, after he has attacked her husband the count’s castle, when she pleads with him to let her go off to a nunnery, he agrees to it.

This, of course, is after taking a suitable, brutal revenge on the count in cutting off his nose. This is, of course, one of the few brutal acts that Rinaldini does ‘onstage’ in the novel. Few gruesome details are given, any more than they are about the various battles and fights in which he in involved. The whole episode is summed up in a few words. As the count is depicted as having made a habit of insulting Aurelia for being illegitimate, forcing her to put up living with his prostitutes, and beating her, we may assume that the reader is meant to find Rinaldini’s savagery to some extent excusable. Interestingly, the lack of detail means that the reader is able to shrug off the horror of this scene fairly easily. I don’t know if this can be put down to the censorship of the German states of the time, or a writing convention. Whichever way, it serves to keep Rinaldini symapthetic in the general readers’ opinion.

Another unscupulous act which Rinaldini does is one where he robs a countess he and his men run into. She makes the mistake of jeering about Rinaldini, calling him a ‘cut purse’. It seems he objects to being described in such low terms. Perhaps, ‘the dreadful robber chief’ is different. Anyway, he gets her to admit that she would find it amusing to encounter the low thief Rinaldini. Then, naturally, he ‘throws off his disguise’. He demands a ‘trifling sum’ and her watch in return for gratifying her wish to meet him. Presumably this is meant to be funny, but it doesn’t exactly depict him in a gallant light. Again, there is a lack of detail – of the Countesses’ fear, etc – which lessens the unpleasantness.

Rinaldini, though we know that a robber chief is obviously responsible for many murders and robberries, is generally depicted symapthetically. His regrets about being an outlaw and his attempts – invariably foiled – to reform are giv en far more prominence than those robber chief activities. His followers worship him, men are happy to follow him, women almost invariably fall in love with him (we are never told exactly what Aurelia feels about him: maybe, as a ‘pure’ young woman of the time, she isn’t suposed to feel anything for a man until it is respectable for her to do so).

‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’, written in 1798, is of course, a very early novel and as an adventure story, more concerned with blood and thunder than with the states of mind and feeling which occupy the still earlier ‘novels by Fanny Burney and Samuel Richardson. All of them lack much deep psychological insight. Nevertheless, Rinaldini is a good example of an anti hero with a terrible past depicted sympthetically. When other characters sit in harsh and simplistic moral judgement on him – that unlucky countess, Aurelia’s uncle Donatelllo ‘(Your love is an abomination’ ) and others, the reader tends to feel that in discounting the fact that he is quite a nice villain as villains go; she or he feels he is being treated unfairly.

Mafia dons and robber chiefs are fairly extreme examples. But the technique is the same for authors depicting morally ambiguous characters with less acts of moral turpitude to their account.

In real life, adopting a sceptical attitude towards possibly malicous rumours about a new acquaintance until they are proven, is one thing. While in a novel, these sinister hints may also be groundless, and set up to make a character duboius about another one, they may well also be hints from the author that this character is not necessarily what she or he seems, and is possibly not to be trusted. In the classic novels, which tend to be less morally ambigiuous than modern ones, they can be subtle warnings.

For instance, in the late Victorian novel by Rhoda Broughton ‘The Game and the Candle’ (1798) ‘, the heroine, Jane, is given various hints that her true love John Miles is of fairly low intelligence, uncultured, often insensitive, at the very least a flirt, emotionally superficial and certainly an opportunist. Worse for a romantic like Jane, given to quoting poetry which he has never heard of to express her feelngs, he excells at telling coarse jokes after dinner.

She ignores them all, convinced that her view of him is the correct one. There are hints that he may even be a sort of borderline gigilo – unthinkable as this is for Jane, she cannot comprehend that there could be anything questionable in his inheriting a fortune from a capricious older women whom he met on board ship, and for whom he did ‘various favours’. Hmm…

No doubt late Victorian readers would have been dismayed by many of the things supposed to show his insensitivity and carelessness that he does which wouldn’t trouble modern ones. In the end, though, the cummulative evidence that he has been carring on with other women during her Victorian year of mourning is too overwhelming even for Jane to ignore.

There are various other Victorian writers who leave subtle hints about the integrity of a character, who is finally revealed as lacking in the qualities for which an infatuated young woman, drawn by his good looks and vigorous masculine appeal, adores him. Quite often, readers can be as almost as ready to overlook shabby episodes only recounted as ‘hearsay’. I have cetainly come across that with the author and character I am going to mention in the conclusion of this post next week. Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that it is Elziabeth Gaskell, and her ambiguous character the light o’ love Chief Harpooner Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.

Leave a Reply