Lucinda Elliot

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

In my previous post, I was writing about Albert Zuckerman’s quote and its applicability to questionable anti-heroes, or heroes who convert from anti-heroes into actual heroes in stories. I mentioned how often readers in general are happy to discount these characters’ former shabby or downright hateful deeds, as long as they are not described graphically in the present. I mentioned a few examples from some classic best sellers over the ages.

A series which certainly ought never to be off the best seller list, and which contains an example of such a male character is Rebecca Lochlann’s epic saga ‘Child of the Erinyes’.

In this, the reincarnated heroine, once the Queen of Crete, is torn through the ages between her conflicting love for two men, two half-brothers who reincarnate along with her. I have noted how various women readers prefer the upholder of patriarchy Chrysaleon to the man who secretly ascribes to worship of the female principle, Menoetius. The author establishes early on what Chrysaleon’s general attitude towards women is – brutal even for a mainland warrior from that era. Here’s an account of his carryings on after a battle:

One year ago, Mycenae had made war on Iolkos, in Thessaly…His (Menoetius’) most vivid recollection was of Chrysaleon. His half brother laughed when he cut down one of the enemy’s finest soldiers, who happened to be the king’s youngest son. He hacked the warrior’s leg halfway off at the knee and left him to bleed to death. Later he sliced a woman’s throat from one ear to the other because she refused to stop keening her grief over a dead warrior. After the battle, Chrysaleon and a gang of Mycenaean soldiers raped and sodomized numerous captive women and young girls. Many were killed. Menoetius tried to rein in his brother, but Chrysaleon, drunk on bloodlust, wine, and victory, wouldn’t be stopped. They came to blows. Three of Chrysaleon’s cronies had to overpower Menoetius from behind, knocking him unconscious with the butt of a sword..’

I have been following the series eagerly, as I have said elsewhere. Here, the author leaves the reader in no doubt about this man’s savagery and rapist propensities, which are depicted in a wholly unromantic light through Menoetius’ recellections.

Despite this, the fact remains that many of the women readers still prefer Chrysaleon to Menoetius. Either they cast that ugly scene quickly to the back of their minds, preferring to concentrate on the romantic present where the magnificient, golden maned warrior falls for the fearless and carefree Aridela, or they like him despite it, or – to my mind higly unfortunately – they like him because of it (that last is hopefully, less usual with young women these days than it was with the generation who swooned over ‘The Flame and the Flower’).

To go into the role of rapist ‘heroes’ in romance would be to stray off topic. The point is, that for whatever reason, a large number of readers of this series (which, by the way, does anything but condone rape and which I can’t recommend enough) are able to put aside Chrysaleon’s moral drawbacks and think of him only as an exciting lover for Aridela.

Later on in the series, by the way, Chrysaleon does all sorts of brutal things ‘on stage’ – including raping the heroine – so I assume it becomes a lot more problematic for those readers who prefer him to defend him. My comments only really refer to the first book, where his worst acts take place in the form of anecdote or flashbacks and are therefore, easier for the less careful reader to put aside.

A character whose worst deeds take place offstage, as ancedotes from other people, is one I have always enjoyed discussing, the opportunist romantic interest in Elizabeth Gaskell’s historical novel about the whaling community in Whitby, ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’; this is the the dashing whaler Charley Kinraid.

This is a man of boundless energy, who goes in for flashy heroics at sea and being a ‘light o’ love’ onland. This is quite apart from being the bravest chief harpooner on the Greenland Seas, the life and soul of the company whereever he goes, and a tireless teller of sailor’s tales. His party piece is dancing a hornpipe at three in the morning. Besides, this, he is possessed of dark wavy hair, shining dark eyes, and flashing white teeth.

What chance does his rival for the naive young farmer’s daughter Sylvia Robson, the quiet and respectable shopkeeper Philip Hepburn, have against him?

When we first hear of Charley Kinraid he is engaged in a fight to the death with a press gang exceeding their remit, and determined to impress the returning crew of a whaler. He sends his men below and stands over the hatches to defend them with a pistol and whaling knife, asserting that they are all married but himself (this is all very heroic, but leaves unexplained why his friend Darley, later described as single himself, is hiding below when he is shot dead).

Kinraid reputedly shoots down two members of the press gang. However, he is not arrested for mutiny, being shot in turn himself and ‘kicked aside for dead’. The elderly captain revives him, he recovers and is feted in Whitby as a hero. As he recuperates at his uncle’s farm, he takes to visiting their neighbours, the Robsons. They happen to have a very pretty and obviously admiring young daughter, already infatuated with ‘the closest approach to a hero that she had ever seen’.

Sylvia thinks Kinraid is quite wonderful, never mind the disturbing rumours that he has had a string of girlfriends, and that he caused the sister of Philip’s business partner Coulson to die of a broken heart. Coulson, a devout Quaker, and therefore, hardly a man to tell a lie, remarks that after the break up with Coulson’s sister, he heard Kinraid went on to treat another couple of girls in the same way.

Sylvia, dismissing this as jealous back biting on Hepburn’s part, becomes secretly engaged to Kinraid herself. At this time, Kinraid assures her that he will ‘either marry her, or none’. Then he is snatched by the press gang on his way back to his ship. By a convenient co-incidence, Philip Hepburn sees this as he walks to catch the coach to Newcastle himself. Kinraid gives him a message of ‘faithful love’ to pass on to Sylvia. Later in the inn where he is staying overnight, Hepbrn is about to write a letter about this when he overhears a group of sailors talking of Kinraid’s reputation for daring exploits, and for trifling with one girl after another.

Outraged, Hepburn puts off passing on the message. Then he puts it off some more, and in the end, becomes so absent minded that he forgets to pass the message on at all, what with his business preoccupations and his eageness to marry Sylvia himself. Kinraid’s hat being found on the shore, everyone thinks that he has been drowned. This causes an outcry from one of his female cousins, who insists that she was engaged to him. Sylvia doesn’t believe a word of it, of course…

Of course, Kinraid returns – after Sylvia is married to Hepburn. He has now become an officer in the royal navy and a war hero. Well, after all, he had to use his energy for something in his three years away at sea.

In a dramatic confrontation, Kinraid and Sylvia berate Hepburn for his duplicity. Kinraid suggests that Sylvia come away with him, as his admiral is bound to be able to obtain a divorce for her (this sounds a likely story to me, given how difficult that was in that era). She won’t leave the baby, and both Hepburn and Kinraid go off.,Hepburn to enlist as a marine, and Kinraid to be feted as a war hero, subsequently promoted to captain.

Within eight months Kinraid has married an heiress. This girl in fact pays Sylvia a visit, assuring Sylvia that Hepburn has saved Kinraid’s life at the Siege of Acre, and so paving the way for a final reconciliation between Sylvia and Hepburn.

Sylvia is startled at Kinraid’s ‘fickleness’ in finding comfort elsewhere so soon. But in fact, the reader has no cause to be. The hints about Charley Kinraid’s opportunism and shallow nature were all there if s/he cared to take notice of them. In fact, various defenders of ‘the honest sailor’ (as he calls himself when berating Hepburn) take the view that he should be regarded indulgently, and that his treatment of Coulson’s sister and the two girls after her, and all the other hints about his ‘light o’ love’ reputation, including his younger cousin Bessy Corney’s view that they were unofficially engaged, mean nothing.

This is, of course, because this is all anecdotal evidence, and easily discounted by readers who want to believe in the character’s integrity. Besides, none of it is vividly depicted as current events.

The same is true about Kinraid’s general opportunism. As ‘specksioneer’ (chief harpooner) he violently opposes the press gang to the point of shooting two of its members dead. After he is press ganged into the Royal Navy and promoted into captain, he would have had to rely on the press gang himself to raise enough of a crew to leave shore, and inevitably (as is emphasized in the Hornblower stories) they had to break the rules and take men supposedly protected from their raids. However, this inevitable about face on the use of the press gang is a fact easily overlooked by those reaeders who want to believe the best of the dashing war hero.

These are just a couple of the many examples which can be found all about in readers’ reactions to a character’s questionable integrity in novels , which I think show the truth of Albert Zuckerman’s words. For geneal readers, what matters is the behaviour he or she sees. What has taken place ‘out of sight’ and is recounted by anecdotes, receives less weight. But unlike the so often groundless gossip in real life, if the author has carefully inserted these unattractive aspects of a character’s past, it may well serve as an true reflection of that character’s moral defects.

Elizabeth Gaskell as a christian, of course, believed that justice belongs beyond the grave. From that point of view, there is perhaps nothing odd about her giving a killer and trifler with young girls’ feelings such a happy ending in this world, untroubled by conscience. When he thinks he is dying at the Siege of Acre, Kinraid has no guilt about any wrongdoing at all, and in fact, only pities his wife the massive loss she will suffer in losing him. This piece of vanity in the face of eternity that seems to trouble none of his defenders, though it should be pointed out that Kinraid is not irrelgious himself – he admits he ‘took to praying of nights’ during a particularly hazardous voyage past a great iceburg. Married to a worshipping heiress as superficial as himself, he is promoted to Captain. He even survives his second serious wounding at the Battle of Acre without any lasting damage; when we last see him, he is ‘walking vigorously’, his silly wife hanging onto his arm (it was highly unlikely that a broken leg could be mended without leaving something of a limp, even in Gaskell’s own time).

By contrast, Philip Hepburn undergoes a miserable existence of abject poverty after he is horribly disfigured in the wars, and lives in abject povety for months. He is only reconciled with Sylvia a few hours before his death. Sylvia dies early, forever mourning her earlier rejection of him. They are punished in this world for their wrongdoings, and while Hepburn is confident of immediate divine forgiveness, Sylvia fears punishment. While it is often mentioned by both Gaskell and by her critics that besides his self-serving duplicity, as a christian Hepburn breaks the first commandment in worshipping another human being in Sylvia, I have only read one critic {JG Sharps) who notices that Sylvia does the same with Charley Kinraid. Undoubtedly, though too ignorant to understand its implications, she does ‘make an idol’ out of her hero. Undoubtedly this leads to misery for her in turn, first in her anguish at being kept apart from him by Hepburn’s dishonesty, and then in her later disillusionment.

It may have been that in being so indulgent towards the’ lost sailor’ character to whom she had obviously given some of her lost sailor brother’s characteristics (as she had to Will Wilson in ‘Mary Barton’ and Frederick Hale in ‘North and South) Elizabeth Gaskell was allowing herself to weaken in her purpose through her longing to give such a happy ending to her real life unaccountably missing brother. Or it may, of course, have been Gaskell’s intention to punish Philip Hepburn and Sylvia Robson in this lfie, whereas Charley Kinraid, oblivious to spiritual issues in this world, faces at least some atonement in the next.

The intriguing thing is, that certainly in the case of Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’, this partial interpretation and dismissive attitude towards anecdotal evidence mentioned by Zuckerman applies to several academics as well as general readers. For instance, the critic Andrew Sanders takes a wholly approving attitude towards the opportunist heartbreaker Kinraid, seeming to think that his dishoourable trifling with innocent girls is of no importance compared to his war hero activities. Marion Shaw is able to dismiss these ugly stories as ‘anecdotal’ has justified Kinraid’s undeserved happy fate by suggesting that if he had been given a sad destiny as well, that would ‘tip the balance too far into tragedy’. Given that this is the ‘saddest novel that Elizabeth Gaskell ever wrote’, I don’t see how that could be. I thnk it would have emphasized the general message that we live in a ‘vale of tears’.

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