Lucinda Elliot

Review of ‘Comin’ Thro’ the Rye’ by Helen Mathers (1875): Victorian Melodrama with an Horrific Victorian Patriarch

I can’t find the edition I read, which is certainly at least 120…

I’ve written before about how my parents renovated rambling country houses, and the problem of those many empty bookshelves my mother filled up with bargain job lots from auctions, which often consisted of late Victorian and early Edwardian popular fiction.

That was how I encountered the uniquely bad writing of the best selling romantic novelist of late nineteenth century Charles Garvice. I always found it odd that  Rachel Anderson  left him out of her book on the history of the romantic novel,  ‘The Purple Heart Throbs’.  I find it equally odd that there is no mention of the writer Helen Mathers (Ellen Buckingham Matthews, 1849-1920), who wrote at least one best seller herself in ‘Comin’ Thro’ the Rye’ (1875).

Incredibly, this lurid and improbable tale is supposedly based on the author’s own romantic experiences.  As it involves an incredible femme fatale antagonist and a man who, while engaged to the heroine, marries her ‘by accident’, those romantic experiences must truly have been the stuff of melodrama.

The title is, of course, taken from a poem, later song of that tiltle, by Robert Burns:

‘Gin a body meet a body

Comin thro’ the rye

An a body kiss a body,

Need a body cry? ‘

The book is typically Victorian in that said melodramaa, while remaining sentimental in tone. There is also quite a bit of humour in it, but apart from domestic issues, the dramatic high points are never treated as dark humour. Of course, the novel wouldn’t count as a romance by today’s standards, because there is anything but a Happy Ever After ending. In fact, the heroine Nell at the end is longing to go to Heaven to join her lost lover and the small boy he had by the woman he insists tricked him into marrying her.

This small boy Wattie, by the way, is a typical Victorian angelic innocent, rather like the lost son of Charles Darnay and Lucie in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, and impossibly sweet, in contradistinction to Nell’s very human younger brothers and sisters. While his death strikes the reader as sad, he is too good to be true, and clearly destined for Heaven from the first.

Wattie in fact might be said to embody the sentimental aspect of the story, while the antagonist the blonde femme fatale Silvia Fleming is the embodiment of the melodramatic. The rather lifeless hero (again like Charles Darnay) personifies the romantic and the melodramatic, while Nell herself and the rest of the characters provide the humour. She is, in fact, the only fully rounded character.

This tricking of a male or female lead into agreeing to a marriage was also a favourite plot device of Charles Garvice. Wiith that author the marriage is prevented if it is the heroine, so that she can still be virginal, while if it is the hero, the guilty and unloved wife considerately and appropriately dies of some heart condition.

I was recommended to read this novel by an older female relative, who said that it was ‘heart breaking’. I can’t say I thought so, either when I first read it or later, when I came across the same battered copy from the  bookshelves to re-read it. It’s frankly too badly written to have that effect on me. The characters aren’t sympathetic enough, particularly the hero, and the melodrama often descends into bathos.

It does, however, have a certain compulsive quality. That, of course, is the main characteristic needed by any novel needs beyond anything else to be a success. This was a best seller in its time, with 35,000 copies sold in four years.

The heroine, Helen Adair, is as believable as the other lead characters are not. She is depicted as a mid-Victorian ‘hoyden’ who grows up into a girl who by the standards of the time, is probably seen by the author as spirited and independent minded. She comes from a background where the Victorian patriarch is not only tyrannical, but mentally unbalanced.  He seems to blame his children for being born and causing him expense, and thrashes his sons mercilessly. In fact, this ‘light novel’ does treat the issue of parental abuse with humorous, but grim accuracy. He is also violently opposed to the girls marrying -clearly because he would then lose some of his victims. He merely swears at them.

It seems their mother married him very early, which could be the only excuse for marrying such a man. Perhaps, though, like some abusers, he never showed his sinister side at that time. None of the children blame her for their domestic miseries, adoring her as much as they abhor him. Being unable to respect their father must have been an appalling situation for Victorian children, and it must have taken some courage for the author to write the story.

We all look upon the governor as a kind of bombshell, or volcano, or loaded gun, that may blow up at any moment and will infallibly destroy whatever is nearest to him..’

The earlier bit of the novel is largely about the heroine’s childhood scrapes and this grim family background. It is lucky that the children are generally too high spirited to be made chronically miserable by their abusive father, and they have a lot of fun in between his outbursts. I can see why the author felt that she must write this condemnation of the power of the upper middle class Victorian domestic tyrant, but it seems to have very little to do with the development of the later plot, which only really starts when Nell is sent away to school. Presumably, this is some sort of ‘ladies academy’ type of finishing school, and in her case, would be thought to be direly needed to turn her into a mild mannered lady.

Of course – and this is a spoiler – it may be relevant, in that after the female antagonist’s machinations, when the male lead cannot marry Nell himself, she nevertheless refuses to marry George as second best and so escape from home. That certainly shows courage.

It is here, that having already met a boy who will soon fall hopelessly in love with her, George Tempest,  she first meets the older  Paul Vasher and Silvia Fleming. They have just broken off an engagement. In Victorian times, it was considered a dastardly thing for a man to break off an engagement, so how Paul Vasher has managed to do it and still be thought a gentleman, I don’t know.  Perhaps he can because it hasn’t been publicly announced yet.

It is here that the increasing descent into melodrama starts. For instance:

‘…As we stood together, your lover came towards us and looked, first on one, then on another, and went away. You never said, ‘ That is my betrothed husband, whom I have kissed and betrayed, as I will kiss and betray you if I have the chance.’ Whenhe rode that steeplechase next mornmg so madly, so recklessly, that all saw the goal he strove to reach was death, and a quarter of an hour later was carried back to his mother’s carriage dead did you feel no remorse—no sorrow? You gave no sign. You were shocked ; but he might have been a common acquaintance, no more…’

Four years later, Nell has agreed to marry the handsome George Tempest,  though she only likes him, if she doesn’t meet anyone else she prefers. But then Paul Vasher literally bumps into her when she is dashing through the field of rye, singing the title song, and that is the end of George’s plans…

But, when they become engaged, Sylvia Fleming finds out and has some plans of her own. She confronts Nell: ‘Let me tell you this, Helen Adair, that you will never be Paul Vasher’s wife, never! “

Needless to say, she is right…

Intriguingly, my older relative recommended it to me as much for the description of a very hot train journey, as anything, which she said was vividly and evocatively described. I could only find one sentence about this:

The train comes snorting in—how sickeningly hot it looks !—and somehow I am bundled into it.’

She must have imagined herself the rest of that vivid description of the heat of a long train journey in the Victorian railway carriage. That is an intriguing example of someone who ought to have taken to writing fan fiction. Sadly, it wasn’t about when my older female realtives had the energy.

What struck me personally, besides the awful behaviour of the father, was the ending, both melancholy and devout. I did find this touching:

WIll they find each other up above, I wonder, my lost lover and my Httle lost angel ? And since I shall go to them, but they will not return to me, I pant, I weary, I burn for the moment when death, ” like a friend’s voice from a distant field,” shall call to me, and, taking my hand in his, lead me to the plains and fields that girdle round the shining city . . . where shall I not see my darlings stepping to meet me through the unfading, incorruptible splendour of ” God’s rye?

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