Recently, I did some reading, and re-reading of several ‘classic’ novels of varying merit – Joseph Conrad – brilliant, though not to be judged taking into account the awful racist assumptions of his times – Elizabeth Gaskell – generally very good, sometimes brilliant, often uneven, Christian Auguste Vulpius – an early groundbreaking novelist, melodramatic beyond belief, but certainly capable of delivering a stirring read, often of the So Bad It’s Good Variety and also Charles Garvice – vastly inferior to them all, generally purely terrible, though occasionally stirred into delivering a decent passage or two.
This got me on to thinking about the whole issue of what you might call the mental life of characters. Is this a modern phenomenon?
Gaskell, in fact, remarks in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ (Sorry, everyone; here I go again, quoting ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ ; have I got a share in the royalties or something?) that self awareness, self analysis, is a comparatively modern concept (it is also, of course, to some extent connected with personality; but that is a different matter). She was far closer in time to the era of the French Revolutionary Wars in which she sets this novel than we are, of course, and she has some memory of the mindset of the generations who preceded her. Their approach to life was then, markedly different from that of the ‘educated’ people of her own day.
Her character Philip Hepburn is self aware – in fact, quite self conscious in the uncomfortable sense of the word – whereas the other characters in the novel are not.
It is an irony that reflective as he is, Philip Hepburn still behaves dishonourably. That compared to modern people of a comparable intelligence he is on the whole less aware of himself and his motivation probably saves him from less stress and moral conflict than a modern thinking person in the same position would suffer.
She saw this lack of reflectiveness as an aspect of this former age, and suggests that our increasing self awareness is not necessarily accompanied by a gain in superior moral insight, though it is accompanied by a general decrease in spontaneity, of exuberance, of vivid existence in the present. Presumably Philip Hepburn is meant to be an indication of this. His love interest the unthinking Sylvia, and his bitter rival the exuberant, opportunistic Charley Kinraid, are presumably meant to be of the old, extroverted type of personality.
This is a fascinating insight. When novels began to be written, as often as not in the author offered very little in the way of a character with a mental life. I admit that I haven’t yet read Sterne – but did read somewhere ( as I said earlier, geek or what?) that a lack of consistency of character and internal dialogue are drawbacks to his writing.
For instance, in Vulpius’ sensational story ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ (for which he claims a moral basis, which I find questionable or decidedly unexamined) we do not hear much of the hero’s thoughts. We are told that he is anguished by his having drifted into a life as the ‘Captain of Bandits’ (that translation does make me laugh; it sounds like the Captain of the First Eleven!), and that he is given to dismal reflection on it, especially after he meets and falls in love with the virtuous Aurelia (and with good reason; when she finds out who he is, she screams and faints).
He does go in for some moral reflection on his situation – but typically, these are expressed externally, as in the dialogue I quoted in my recent blog post on the novel; for instance, he sings a song, accompanying himself by guitar, about this moral quandary (I assume he is meant to have written this as a lament rather than to clarify his feelings).
Before going on, I have to give a bit of background and say that one of the inconsistencies of this story is the time frame. From the point of view of Rinaldo and his fellow robbers, only a short while has passed between his finding out that Aurelia’s great uncle, alarmed at her having come to know him, has had her sent on her way to join a convent, and his coming on her as a bitterly unhappily married and disillusioned wife to the wicked Count Rozzio. From her point of view, months at least have passed.
Rinaldo had positioned his men to abduct her, but instead they had to fight off encroaching government troops, who decimated the robber band. Shortly after this he took up with the devoted gypsy girl Rosalia and meeting with the few survivors of his old band, set up a new one while continuing to protest that he wished to escape the country and his way of life.
Then finding an unhappily married Aurelia in Baron Rozzio’s nearby castle (there are lots of convenient co-incidences in this tale), he is insulted by the wicked count and his toadies and swears revenge. Although they evidently live in different time schemes, this doesn’t stop Rinaldo from deciding to free Auerelia at once and he sets his men on the castle.
As usual, when the men who have previously treated him with contempt discover who he is, they fall on their knees. Aurelia swoons, and on recovering consciousness, pleads with him to be ‘As kind as you are terrible. Deal with me honourably…Abuse not your power, nor make my yet unspotted name the jest of mankind.’
One assumes from this that she is concerned that Rinaldini might abduct her by force, and one wonders if he did intend that, as his response is to sigh: ‘Now I feel what I am!” Typically, we aren’t told exactly what his plans were, if he, a man of action rather than thought, knows himself.
Anyway, that told him! He does what Aurelia asks and takes her to her mother in a nearby convent. He always declares that he worships Aurelia’s virtue as distinct from his own wickedness, but we wonder at times how far Vulpius intends this declaration to be sincere. Because the character’s inner life, such as it is, is so sketchy, we have no idea. We may assume that the fact that Aurelia’s great uncle the hermit Donato tells Rinaldini, ‘You cannot love her in an honourable way, and your love is a crime…’ is a pointer, but the cursory and uneven portrayal of character in this novel makes it difficult to tell.
An ugly incident when Rinaldo’s men sack Rozzio’s castle shows his opinion of how women who are not virtuous (or anyway, virtuous with anyone but him) should be treated; he gives the Count’s former concubines, who have been invited to live at the castle and have insulted Aurelia, ‘to his men’ as the equivalent of war prizes.
He goes off to indulge in his earthy relationship with his willing slave Rosalia, who doesn’t seem all that troubled by loving the chief of a band of brigands except when she finds that she is pregnant (this difficulty is got over by the poor girl’s subsequent miscarriage). She never expects him to marry her and he never offers. Perhaps her status isn’t sufficient to tempt him, though he was originally a goat-herd himself.
This scene is typical both of the melodrama of this novel, and the fact that if indeed it does have a moral purpose the author claims in his preface, it fails. The whole question of Rinaldo Rinaldini’s realisation of his own degradation and brutalisation in his life as a bandit is dealt with too cursorily and as asides, though usually in terms of high drama. For instance he exclaims as he looks at the dawn: –
‘Even on me the golden sun (said he) bestows his light; on me, as on all men, whether good or bad; on me, to whom his beneficient rays are as a lightning flash, threatening destruction on my guilty conscience.’
This piece of poesy doesn’t prevent him from shortly afterwards holding a pistol to the breast of the unfortunate Marchioness who has suggested, not knowing who she speaks to, that Rinaldini is a coward, and demanding ‘The trifling sum of a hundred sequins’ or from giving Count Rozzio’s unfortunate courtesans as war prizes to his men (we never hear any more about them; we may assume that the author of this moral novel thought that as they were women of easy virtue, it didn’t matter particularly if they were raped).
Rinaldo is increasingly shown as attempting to escape from his life as a bandit – but some chance meeting or co-incidence always brings him back to that course of life.
As this novel progresses, this sabotaging of the brigand hero’s plans for escaping to a new and blameless life becomes almost bathetic. The Old Man of Fronteja comes constantly to pop up as presumably, the physical manifestation of Rinaldo’s conscience. He wants him to fulfil his destiny and become a military hero.
Whether intentionally or not, these recurrent manifestations become ludicrous, and one is put in mind of some pantomime character.
We begin to feel that he is somehow sabotaging himself through unconscious motivation, though of course, such psychologizing was completely outside the mindset of early writers of ‘Penny Dreadfuls’. Characters were made to have certain goals but to be pushed in contrary directions by fate or divine will or for that matter, the author’s own will, as reflected in the requirements of the plot.
Another lady love of Rinaldo’s, Dianora, also screams and faints when she finds out who he is (she has just found out that she is pregnant but like Rosalia, miscarries).
This dramatic moment is in fact illustrated by a wonderfully tacky illustration in the book, and as I have said before, I wish I had a scanner to show it in this post).
At once point Rinaldo does have a brief respite in escape to a quiet island where by chance he meets his beloved Dianora (the unfortunate Rosalia is now dead). He becomes able to shed tears and pray, and she is convinced that as he is now becoming ‘a good man’ she should forgive him, but malign fate brings about another attack from government troops. In no time he is loading his pistols again, determined to fight it out from a cave, and finally exasperated at his recidivism, his tormenting mentor and first tutor, The Old Man of Fonteja, tries to stab him to death…
Interestingly, a much earlier novel – Samuel Richardson’s ‘Pamela’ has a far more self conscious and reflective narrative viewpoint, that of the prissy heroine.
I am far from unusual in finding both her moral outlook and that of the author one of self serving hypocrisy – she is quite happy to put herself into the hands of her tormentor and putative seducer and would be rapist, the arch rogue Mr B once their relationship is put on a nominally respectable basis – but my point is, that there were very few novels with a purported moral lesson which even in this period, did depict moral reflection and also, a self aware protagonist. Richardsons’ are unusual.
Vulpius’ novel is an exciting read (which Pamela, despite Mr B’s habit of springing from closets, is not) but in the absence of the balance of a detached and ironical viewpoint, his aim to stir the reader’s blood detracts from any plausible moral values becoming clear. Even apart from that, Rinaldo is a strangely ambivalent and patchy character, passionate without depth, and lurid without being vivid – a fascinating example of the blunt techniques of the early novelist.