I have often written of how many writers combine both strong and sentimental writing in one novel, and that this is particularly true of many classic Victorian novelists such as Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot. While it is a notorious fault with Charles Dickens, even Thackeray often descended into the maudlin. While for these greater writers, the sentimentality is less predominate, with other writers of popular fiction the weaker form of writing is often the main style.
I have just finished reading the melodramatic tale, ‘Eve and the Law’ by Alice and Claude Askew, published in 1905 – which makes it Edwardian. I mentioned it in my last post. This was part of the many job lots of books my mother bought at auctions to fill she shelves in the rambling, isolated old houses which she and my father used to renovate. It is probably long out of print,though it might be obtainable on Project Gutunberg and Internet Archieve and such sites.
The edition is ‘Collins 7d (that is, the old seven pennies) Modern Fiction.’ Books were too expensive for ordinary working people to buy then, but there were circulating libraries, and also, works of fiction were regularly serialised in the magazines, which were sometimes brought out annually in hard backed form. Interestingly, this tradition of serialising books in women’s magazines continued until comparatively modern times, and I haven’t noticed if it has been discontinued or not. I first read ‘Cheri’ in serial form in ‘Cosmopolitan’.
This story is unusual, of course, in being written by a man and a woman, and it seems to me that the strong writing style of the one and the sentimental style of the other alternate in an extraordinary way. (of course, it is possible that they both wrote sometimes weakly and sometimes forcefully). This is combined with the strong religious theme typical of the period.
It made me think how much styles change over the years, particularly in popular novels, where the writers are aiming for mass appeal rather than originality. The accepted style and content of one decade can bear little resemblance to that of the later one.
The plot of this tale of female sin and redemption is ludicrously improbable.
A French aristocratic rake named Felix Deschamps (later the Count d’Anvers) persuades a ‘well born’ English girl named Eve Hastings, who is already engaged to the hearty Sir John Almyer, to have a runaway marriage with him. He has her tell her family that she has gone to France to study music, while keeping the true state of affairs quiet.
We know he is a villain from the description of his weedy physique and prominent teeth. But his dark curling hair and flashing black eyes and red sensual lips give him a charm that draw women to him. He is ‘tireless in pursuit of pleasure; he had an unquenchable thirst for enjoyment’.
…That will never do for a hero of this period.
Eve, who has the requisite golden hair and white skin of a Victorian heroine, spends an idyllic month with him in a forest near Fontainbleau. During this time, an old clerical friend of John Almyer, Jereome Meredith, just happens to run into the couple; this novel, like many of its sort, is full of co-incidences.He takes one look at the villain’s face and decides that he and the young woman are in an irregular liaison. Psychic powers, or what?
Of course, he is proved correct. Suddenly, Flexi callously reveals that their marriage is not valid in France. Having heard that his uncle is dying and that he is to inherit he title, and having abruptly tired of living in a cottage in the forest with Eve, he decides to get rid of her.
Eve goes back to England, and decides that she is free to marry her discarded fiancé and to make a new start.
Meanwhile, Felix d’Anvers is dismayed to find out that his dying uncle will only make Felix his heir if he agrees to carry on his uncle’s fight against the unjust laws which make an English marriage invalid in France. The opportunistic Felix agrees, and goes hot footed back to the forest to make it up with Eve, only to find that she has gone.
He pursues her to England, and turns up on the day of her wedding. Here he meets Eve’s new sister-in-law, the lively Dorothy. He decides to forget about Eve and sends her back her discarded wedding ring. He and Dorothy are at once attracted to each other, take up a flirtatious correspondence, and later fall genuinely in love.
Meanwhile, Jerome Meredith comes back to take up the post of rector. He recognizes Eve from their previous meeting, but has scruples about revealing her secret, and marries them anyway.
Eve’s new husband dotes on her and she feels some guilt at keeping the truth from him. She falls in love with him, which is lucky for him, as he is one of the dullest, shadowy male leads I have encountered since the cardboard Charles Darney in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and Angel Clare in ‘Tess of D’ubervilles’.
Jerome goes to Italy and runs into Dorothy, with whom he has been in love for years. She is staying with her sister, who married another cad who considerately left her a young widow by blowing his brains out. Just why this detail is added to the story is never explained, as it does nothing to further the plot, but it adds to the Gothic atmosphere. Perhaps there is a hint that Dorothy does not learn by example? Certainly, John Almyer’s sisters seem to make a point of marrying undependable villains, as if rebelling against his example.
The austere Jerome’s faith is tried by his jealousy of Dorothy and Felix. Finally, on being rejected by Dorothy and on hearing of her engagement to the wicked Count, he goes to Fountainbleau to find out what he can of Felix’s former liaison with Eve. Here he falls off his horse and is looked after by an artist who just happens to have the same housekeeper as the one who kept house for Felix and Eve (co-incidences abound in this novel). She tells him all about Felix’s ways and Eve. He and the artist have many discussions. I assume the point of this is that Jerome’s narrow mind is opened.
It is certainly a good thing that the authors saw that many clerics were exceptionally narrow in their interpretation of Christianity, anyway; this also adds an incongruous level of seriousness to the plot which is at odds with the frequently weak style of writing.
When he has recovered, Jerome returns to England and when Eve refuses to admit to the truth, tells John Almyer ‘All about Eve’. He is disgusted, and leaves to shoot big game on the Congo rather than himself.
Eve – astonishingly – comes to like and to place her faith in Jerome Meredith, which, given that he betrayed her after not speaking out at her wedding, is a remarkable piece of magnaminity. Jerome, presumably through the influence of the artist and by suffering over his loss of Dorothy, has become kinder and less aesthetic.
Then Dorothy and Felix come to visit, a ridiculous situation treated without a jot of humour by the authors. Then Jerome is killed in saving Felix when his horse bolts.
Eve resolves to tell Dorothy the truth, but learning that she is having a baby, she keeps silent. Then she hears that John Almyer has been killed by ‘a savage tribe’ (perhaps they might have resented the European invaders?). She mourns excessively and lives in miserable penitence with her Aunt Letitia (a comic character, the trivial details of whose day are wittily recounted).
Meanwhile, Felix has become a successful politician with his campaigning against the marriage laws and is happy with Dorothy at the Château d’Anvers. He comes under the influence of the local priest Pere Joseph. Soon the superficial Felix, who looks forward to having an heir and becoming a respected politician, willingly makes an apparent repentance for his past life as a rake.
But then, Dorothy, on hearing of her brother’s death, falls in a faint down the front steps, killing both herself and her unborn child. She also dies disillusioned at the last moment with Felix, who shows his lack of spirituality by pleading with her to stay alive because he needs her (an entirely human response to the death of a young bride, I would have thought, but one which the authors believe shows a low spirit). Presumably this turning of the knife was regarded by them as necessary for her spiritual redemption.
I was sad about this wildly improbable end, which is clearly intended to be The Hand of Fate striking her down for marrying a bad man. The lively Dorothy is one of the most appealing characters in the book, far more endearing than Eve, who, apart from her outrageous act in eloping with Felix and going ahead with her wedding plans to John Almyer, is not particularly interesting. Even in her descent into bitterness and a dark night of the soul she somehow seems unreal.
Somehow, like Charles Dickens’ Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette,she never comes to life in the readers imagination, so she is an ideal mate for the dull sportsman and Strong Englishman John Almyer, who goes about quoting platitudes.
Felix is overcome with grief at Dorothy’s death, and Pere Joseph tries to use this to make him truly religious. Pere Joseph suspects that he is insincere in his dramatic repentance for his former rakish ways, even when he confesses his betrayal of Eve.
Then, Felix makes the improbable decision to go to England and persuade Eve of her sin (presumably, her sin in having bigamously married John Almyer in England rather than in living accidentally outside wedlock with him). This is so clumsy a plot device to get him in England that I was startled. However, writers of this type of romantic melodrama did this sort of thing all the time, and seemingly got away with it with their readers, at least in that their books continued to sell.
Eve has, however, received news from John Almyer’s companion on the expedition that John Almyer is not dead. John Almyer apparently wishes to surprise Eve, but the friend thinks the shock would be bad for her and writes to warn her of his return.
He has survived weeks of torture at the hands of the ‘Natives’. Presumably this was done just for the fun of it, for it is never explained why they didn’t just kill him off, and it is never hinted that he had some knowledge which they wanted. Now he returns to England – seemingly unscathed in body and mind, being an English hero.
Naturally, Felix d’Anvers arrives on the same night as his rival. Overcome once more by Eve’s attractions (though he had been so bored with them in Fontainbleau) he forgets his spiritual mission. John Almyer walks in on them and misunderstands the situation.
Eve assures him he is wrong.
The two men have a dramatic fight in the firelight (Eve was waiting for her husband with the lights off to flatter her complexion, as one does).
Then, having sent Eve up to her room, John Almyer leaves the room himself, providing the unconscious Felix with a gun with which to shoot himself or to shoot his rival when he returns. John Almyer tells Eve he foresees no happiness for them and doesn’t care if he lives or dies (it is not explained why in that case, he bothered surprising her by his return – a lover like gesture). Felix, however, he says, will be too cowardly to do either.
Eve runs down to prevent murder, and Felix runs off into the night, proving himself ‘the cur’ which Jerome and John Almyer have always called him. Eventually, pursued by spirits either real or imaginary, he runs into the quarry from which Jerome Meredith saved him before.
This end put me in mind of the end of another Villain of the Piece, Stannard Marshbank in Charles Garvice’s ‘The Outcast of the Family’. It really doesn’t do to go running about by quarries in the dark of the moon, but Villains of the Piece will do it.
Eve reminds John Almyer that ‘Adam forgave Eve’. (I think that Eve had to do some forgiving too, as he had told tales with his excuse, ‘The woman did tempt me and I did eat’ but that’s irrelevant here). John Almyer decides that they can be happy after all, as like Adam and Eve they can ‘go out into the world according to God’s holy ordinance’, and the story ends with her realising that like the first woman: ‘She would become mother to life and that Christus had redeemed Adam’.
A fittingly devout end to a story about sin and temptation. I wholly dislike the notion of a Creator of wrath rather than of mercy. It is not only in the quality of the writing that I find this work wholly inferior in tone to say, Anne Bronte’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ also about an unrepentant rake, but in the breadth of spiritual understanding.
However, as I say, there are oddly contrasting passages where strong writing takes over from the normal superficially melodramatic tone. Here is one:
‘Who is coming down the road, I wonder…Don’t you see the ‘rider on the white horse’ Felix? Now, where have I come across the line before…’ The girl spoke in bright, careless tones, wholly forgetful that the line she referred to so cheerfully came from the Book of Revelation: but Felix remembered, and he muttered uneasily, “‘I looked, and behold a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Death.’”… “Who is morbid now?” she asked. “I don’t think the postboy would be pleased to hear us, for it is Francis riding up with the letter bag, Felix.”
Despite the humour of this wholly prosaic revelation (there is an odd combination of humour and deadly seriousness in this melodrama) the letter is the one about the death of her brother which will cause her to faint and fall to her death. There is an excellent piece of dramatic build up:
‘The warm, hazy afternoon was changing into a sinister evening; heavy rainclouds were drifting up, swarms of dark, noisome gnats and insects were whirring through the air, and steaks of yellow light, presaging storm, appeared in the sky. The runner came in sight. He was one of the footmen from the château, the same fair, florid young man who had been in Count Raoul’s death chamber, summoned there to witness the dying cousin’s will. Directly Felix caught sight of the young man, a terrible fear and dread came over him; his face turned livid, and he clutched at Pere Joseph for support.’
That is just the way to write Gothic! Over-the-top it will necessarily be: weak and sentimental it never should be, as in the scene on Eve’s wedding morning: ‘”I have brought your breakfast tray up,” laughed Dorothy, opening the door with one hand and supporting the dainty little tray with the other. “All the servants clamoured for the honour, Eve, but I said it was the privilege of the bridesmaid to serve the bride.”’
I would like to think that the strong writing came from both the male and female partners, but I do wonder. Many woman writers of romance have an unlucky tendency towards sentimentality to this day: whether this is done to appeal to the wider readership, or an innate fault in their style, is unclear. Still, I have commented on Charles Dickens and Thackeray’s maudlin tendencies, so perhaps it was the man as well.