The Secret of Wold Hall (1905) – Evelyn Everett-Green

Evelyn Everett-Green came from a Methodist family, and many of her early works were pious ‘improving’ books aimed at children, especially at young girls. She wrote over 350 novels in her life time, some two thirds of them using her own name, the others were published under several male pseudonyms. She found it rather difficult writing at home and she struggled with the dreary town winters. As a result she eventually upped-sticks and settled in Madeira with her friend Catherine Mainwaring Sladen.

The Secret of Wold Hall was first published in 1905. Now entirely forgotten, this novel is a real gem, and I highly recommend it to anybody who likes a good old fashioned mystery story. Everett-Green’s realism greatly appealed to me, and the reader is left spellbound by her beautifully written and fast paced narrative.

The novel opens with a ten year old girl who has fallen down a small precipice searching for edelweiss flowers. She is rescued by a sixteen year old boy called Marcus who promises to come back and marry her when he has made his fortune. The young Lady Marcia Defresne is touched by his offer, but explains that as she is an Earl’s daughter it is impossible for her to marry outside her social class. He carries the young girl back to her hotel where the Earl St. Barbe and his family are residing. In the commotion of their arrival, her ‘brown boy’ disappears and is not seen again.

The novel jumps forward ten years, and true to his word, the now rich Marcus (son of a man recently given a baronetcy) keeps his earlier promise. Lady Marcia’s family has now hit hard times, and Sir Robert (Marcus’s father), is able to save the ‘penniless peer’ from embarrassment, and secure Lady Marcia’s hand for his son.

As the novel unfolds, we learn that there is an old secret in Marcus’s life. It transpires a strange death took place at his bachelor pad (Wold Hall) and although he was cleared by the magistrates, the locals are still deeply divided about whether he is guilty or not of the murder.

After their marriage, Lady Marcia starts learning more about her husband’s past, and she is unable to form a positive opinion about him. Feeling she has made a terrible mistake, she hears harrowing stories from the locals, and is nearly convinced of her doom when she stumbles upon the old dalesman, Ebenezer Raleigh, and learns it was his son who was found dead in Wold Hall. His crazed ramblings frighten her, and cast a dark shadow over any hopes of marital bliss.

Without revealing too much of the plot or spoiling the mystery, I can say that the sinister and deluded Ebenezer, eventually seeks revenge on Marcus. He decides to blow up the local mine, whilst Marcus is down overseeing the workers. During this intense episode a mysterious man appears from the past, save’s Marcus’s life, and reveals what really happened that unfortunate night at Wold Hall.

There are also many interesting sub-plots in the novel. One cannot help admiring Sweetheart (a little orphaned girl) and her protector ‘Best Beloved’ (a mysterious and reclusive relative), two fascinating characters from Marcus’s past, who ultimately win Lady Marcia’s love and respect, and help her to overcome her marriage doubts. It seems everybody has skeletons in their closets in this book, but as the story unfolds, all is eventually explained with satisfaction, and our aristocratic pair finally fall hopelessly in love with each other. As if to compensate for all the darkness and suspense which prevails throughout the book, there are a number of exceedingly happy endings, including three love matches which ultimately reach fruition – amor vincit omnia!

The Cloven Foot (1879) – M.E. Braddon

This novel is a top-notch example from the school of ‘Sensational Novels’. It really is a neglected gem! Packed with murder, bigamy, treachery and heartache, there is enough for anybody who needs a little drama in their lives.

In the beginning, the novel follows two seemingly unrelated stories, and I nearly abandoned it after chapter VI. Be this as it may, the opening is intriguing. Jasper Treverton is on his death bed and has sent for his young cousin John Treverton to visit him. John arrives at the manor, meets with Jasper’s adopted daughter Laura Malcolm, and has his interview with the squire before the old man pops his clogs. During the reading of the will, Laura is left an annuity of 6000 a year, and John is left the estate… BUT … and there is of course a bizarre clause: he must marry, Miss Laura Malcolm, within a year of the squire’s death!

We then follow the the lives of the Chicots. Mademoiselle Le Chicot is an infamous London actress causing quite a stir in the theatres. Her husband Jack is much the opposite – trapped in his failed marriage, he is the insignificant partner, known exclusively in the fashionable world, as ‘the husband of La Chicot’.

We return to John Treverton and read how he frequently visits the Manor House to see Miss Malcolm. They genuinely seem to like each other, and their relationship blossoms. Laura has a best friend called Celia with whom she shares all her secrets. Celia’s father is the local clergyman, who also has a son – a good for nothing scamp and minor poet called Edward, who frequently idles his time away at the Manor House in the company of Laura and Celia. He is dreadfully jealous of Laura’s growing bond with John Treverton, and he struggles with his unrequited feelings.

Eventually John and Laura declare their love for each other and tie the knot. Old Jasper’s will is then realised, and John, after an intense spell of melancholy, mysteriously does a runner leaving Laura totally devastated, but in full legal possession of the manor and estate.

We are now back with the La Chicots, and the glamourous Zaire Chicot is given a priceless diamond necklace by a wealthy Jewish admirer. One evening whilst she is asleep she is strangled, and her necklace is stolen. Jack is suspected of her murder, and so he goes off in search of a constable (never to return), while the whole of the boarding house is left shocked by the brutal crime.

John returns to the manor and to Laura, his wife. He vaguely describes his situation to her (not mentioning the murder of course), and they decide to get remarried in a distant parish in Cornwall where nobody will recognise them. Laura is glad that they are now properly husband and wife, but she is troubled by the fraud – she is aware that neither the estate nor and money legally belong to them (as they are contrary to Jasper’s will). She suggests to John that they should forfeit their rights, and confess the deception to the two trustees (her own father and the faithful Treverton family solicitor).

Edward, Celia’s jealous brother, already knows John’s (aka Jack Chicot’s) dark past and heads to London for further evidence. He brings a young doctor who knew the Chicots’ intimately to visit the vicarage on pretense of them being old chums. The doctor then confirms Edward’s suspicions. Realising the noose is tightening around him, John confesses all to the trustees and Laura. He denies the murder of Zaire Chicot, although the evidence seems stacked against him, his solicitor and the vicar both firmly believe his story. The solicitor with uncanny acumen has a hunch that Zaire may have been in a previous marriage before her ‘marriage’ to John, and decides they must go to Auray, France to see if there is any evidence. Happily it does indeed turn out to be the case, so John and Laura’s first marriage was legitimate after all, and the estate is safe. Edward’s jealous passion now gets the better of him, and Scotland Yard are suddenly at the manor, arresting John and taking him to London for a trial.

In a nutshell, there is a superb trial, and with John’s clever defense lawyer, Mr. Leopold, and with his former landlady Mrs. Evitt’s long overdue confession of what she saw, Treverton is finally exonerated and returns to his wife and his estate a free man.  Of course Edward sensibly decides on a life in the colonies, and the novel concludes with a tip-toppingly, rippingly jolly ‘happily ever after’ style ending.

Having read many of Braddon’s other novels, I’m deeply surprised that The Cloven Foot hasn’t remained one of her more popular books. In my humble opinion it knocks the socks off of Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Aurora Floyd (1863), the two books which she is mainly remembered for writing.

Hugh Latimer, or The School Boys’ Friendship (1828)

I’ve wanted to read this extremely rare novel by Susannah Strickland for years, so you can imagine my excitement when I recently discovered a readable grainy microfiche version. I have to confess it’s the first time I’ve ever read a book this way, but it was well worth the effort.

The novel revolves around a 12 year old boy called Hugh Latimer who attends a foundation school as a scholarship boy. He is the son of a widowed shopkeeper and gee doesn’t he get some abuse from his aristocratic peers. The children taunt him with insults like ‘beggar’s brat,’ but Latimer struggles on bravely through his school days with the help of his best friend Montrose. As the book progresses the boys develop a deep and lasting friendship and they learn much from their uncles and school master, Mr. Manby. From the very start, when Hugh asks to be taken from the school, his uncle asks ‘what would you rather be a gentleman or a shopkeeper?’ when Hugh replies the former, his uncle retorts ‘well don’t let them take that advantage from you’. The novel is also rich in biblical lessons, especially those found in the the book of St. Matthew, and one is given a real insight into early 19th century mentality. The author Mrs. Strickland develops several themes in her writing which she feels strongly about; in particular, she exposes and tackles class and racial prejudices which were both problematic during this period. In one scene the boys are walking arm in arm and happen to meet a black youth who enters the school with a basket of cakes on his head. Being a book of its time we encounter a vexing racist attack. The author lectures the reader on the evils of idleness and highlights this as the reason for the assault. Our hero Montrose then appears on the scene and threatens to thrash the boys for their inhumanity. When they leave we hear him addressing the youth ‘so where do you live, Blackey?’ He is clearly a thoughtful boy, but he has much to learn! Anyway, after the youth refuses their financial assistance, Montrose decides they should all visit his uncle. The Colonel then repays old ‘Blackey’ and after a long fruitful lecture he joins their hands and solemnly declares they must remain friends for life.

Later in the story with the introduction of Sinclair, the novel turns its focus to class prejudice. The pompous Sinclair with his upper class ancestry causes great mischief to Latimer’s friendship with Montrose. Having seen this unfold, Mr. Manby invites Hugh to his residence for tea. Hugh confesses he is heartbroken after being forsaken by Montrose and here Mr. Manby reveals his own humble origins as a foundation boy. He recalls being bullied by a youth called Carey, who spared few opportunities in humiliating him in front of his peers. One summer’s morning while out walking his dog he noticed somebody struggling in the water. It was Carey, and feeling nothing but indignation he decided to stand by and watch him drown. It was only after his dog jumped in the water and swam towards the boy that he came to his senses and dragged Carey onto the riverbank. Manby continues by explaining how they wept in each other’s arms, forgave the past and how Carey died peacefully in God grace, washed free of all his sins [naturally Carey’s death is full of pious reflections and comforting promises of everlasting life].

In the latter part of the novel Montrose invites Latimer to his uncle’s for the holidays. Of course Latimer initially hesitates after hearing that Sinclair and his siblings will also be there. Latimer arrives at the Colonel’s house and a week passes without any news from the brats. The boys and the Colonel spend their happy days in the pursuit of knowledge and science. When the arrogant Sinclair finally arrives he sees Latimer playing chess with his sister and declares he is no suitable playfellow for his sibling. The next morning Sinclair ignores Latimer’s salutations, and Montrose launches into an angry rant in defense of his friend. The Sinclair brothers leave the room and the Colonel tries to patch things up. The week passes in haughty politeness but with no sense of any warmness developing. Later, during a group drama where the parts are divided according to personality, the Sinclair sisters remark that ‘Latimer’ should naturally be the servant. The wounded boy retaliates: ‘what of it. My father was once a proud servant who died fighting for his country’.

While Montrose is downstairs chatting with chums from school, Latimer hears one of the girls shrieking as her dress catches fire. She is completely engulfed in flames so he raps her in a blanket and manages to singe off his eyelids so severally he cannot see for days. Next there follows a mawkish and unrealistic scene where the Sinclair’s fall at Latimer’s feet weeping and forgetting their old prejudices, thank him for saving their sister’s life. A few days later when the party departs (with Hugh still bedridden) he is given ‘handsome gifts’ for the services he rendered to the girl. The Colonel then sits with Latimer and points out a sword hanging on the wall. When he asks the boy to guess who that sword belonged to, Hugh, answered ‘to a hero?’ to which the Colonel replies, ‘yes, it was your fathers’. An ecstatic Hugh then asks the Colonel how he knew his father.  The Colonel explains how he was not dissimilar to the haughty Sinclair in his youth and had treated Latimer’s father (who was his commanding officer) with much contempt because of his humble origins. After repeatedly trying to antagonise him he eventually struck him in the face. The noble officer reminded him that he could be sentenced to death for his affront, but concluded how he was grateful there were no witnesses, as the matter could now end in a truce. As a sign of new found respect they exchanged their swords.

In the process of time the two boys become top of their school. The famous Lord Peterborough is passing through the area and requests to see the establishment. Latimer as the head scholar delivers an excellent speech in Latin, and after making some enquiries Lord Peterborough learns he is the son of the brave soldier who had thrice saved his life. To return the favour Hugh is awarded a pair of colours by the peer and a 50 pound annual pension for his mother and lame uncle. And here the novel concludes with the following beautiful paragraph:

‘The two young friends entered the army together; they served in the same regiment, fought in the same battles, and bled the same cause. Montrose, after many gallant actions, was made Lord Grahame; and his friend Latimer, rising by degrees to the height of his profession, received the badge of knighthood from the hand of his sovereign’.

For me, this book was both charming and silly at the same time. Often the scenes were overly mawkish, and the boys’ relationship was too mushy. Nevertheless, if one can see past this, and have the patience to wade through the religious moralising and shallow characters, I think it is well worth a read, even if only to appreciate the forward thinking ideas of the author.

Left to Themselves (1891)

Left to Themselves: Being the Ordeal of Philip and Gerald (1891)

By Edward Irenaeus Prime Stevenson

Known to scholars as the author of the first openly American gay novel, Edward Irenaeus Stevenson remains a largely forgotten and neglected writer. Over a decade before the publication of his ground breaking literary milestone, he published Left to Themselves a fascinating young adult novel, which in my humble opinion is a gem that deserves a revival. Stevenson writes with gusto as we follow the adventures of two boys, who united in romantic friendship, overcome the most incredible obstacles. It’s really hard to believe that such an enthralling novel with a shipwreck, an attempted kidnap, an equinoctial tempest and a relentless predator could have remained out of print for over a hundred years! It was reissued only earlier this year by the excellent Valancourt Books.

steamer

Summary

Patrick Sip, a seasoned tramp, is grumbling about life, after his fifth escape from the workhouse. He is asking himself what people find so attractive about nature when he can’t even get a morsel to eat except berries in season. He sees the twelve year old, well-to-do, Gerald Saxton, who is fishing and decides to harass him for his hamper. The startled boy sprints towards a farmhouse and the chase is only cut short by the intervention of an older boy, Philip Touchstone.

Philip and Gerald bond instantly on their wagon journey to the Ossokosee Hotel. Gerald notices how Philip becomes red in the face when he talks about his father. At the lodge they overhear General Sawtelle discussing Philip’s deceased father, and Philip decides it’s only fair that Gerald should hear the truth before they become firmer friends. It transpires that Mr. Touchstone was involved in the infamous Suburban Trust Company robbery for which he was later sent to prison. After his release he died of consumption. His wife also died, and Philip was left an orphan. The chapter concludes with a closer intimacy between the two boys, with Gerald declaring he doesn’t believe what people say about Philip’s father.

The following day Mr. Marcy and Gerald go to the river to watch the annual regatta. Gerald is excited and hopes to see Philip rowing for the Ossokosees crew. The Ossokosees have been beaten three consecutive times by the Victors, so many have turned up for the race. The race is beautifully narrated by the author and we see a glorious victory for the Ossokosee Club. At the end of the chapter we are told Philip and Gerald go to sleep, ‘Gerald with one hand under his yellow head, and the other just touching Philip’s arm’.

Mr. Marcy receives a letter from Gerald’s father requesting his presence in Nova Scotia. Philip is asked to escort Gerald on the long trip, and the boys are delighted with the idea. On their train journey to New York they fail to notice a strange man listening to their conversation. He reads the letter that Gerald has carelessly dropped and disappears. Minutes later the train arrives at the next station and the supposed ‘Mr. Hilliard’ greets the boys with some alarming news. His apartment has apparently been involved in a fire, and he suggests the boys come to the Windsor hotel for the night. Of course, Philip is suspicious, but Gerald thinks it will be fun! Thankfully, the train experiences engine troubles and stops for repairs. The passengers decide to stretch their legs until they are summoned back by the whistle. During the interval, ‘Mr. Hilliard’ sees to some business, and the boys explore an abandoned cellar. Suddenly, they hear the whistle, but they arrive too late and the train departs without them! Finding themselves in a quandary, they catch the adjacent freight train, and alight somewhere in up-town New York. They find Mr. Hilliard’s apartment and ask the butler where he is. Curiously, Hilliard is upstairs on the second floor, and it appears there was no fire! The boys are astonished when they meet the real Mr. Hilliard, and conclude the other must have been an imposter!

The next day Mr. Hilliard takes the boys to the Old Province steamer and they sail for Halifax. It’s a rough passage and the seasick Gerald retires to his cabin. Philip removes to the dining room where he notices the imposter ‘Hilliard’ sitting with a gentleman in the corner. Returning to the cabin, he finds that Gerald needs some ice for a headache. Philip locks Gerald in his room and goes looking for a porter. He meets the imposter and agrees to a private meeting. Philip learns that Belmont (the imposter) intends to kidnap Gerald. He has informed the captain and the authorities that Gerald is ‘his’ boy, and he plans to leave the ship at Martha’s Vineyard in the morning. Philip is outraged by this audacious story. Belmont says he will also accuse Philip of kidnap if he tries to interfere. After a prolonged battle of wills, Belmont says he will call the Captain and Mr. Arrowsmith, the mate, so they can decide who is bluffing. Suddenly, there is a terrifying explosion and Philip and Belmont are thrust together. After much commotion, the captain announces that the explosion (in the hold) has broken a hole in the bow and the steamer is sinking! In the ensuing chaos the boys are safely stowed with the secondmate in a little raft and pushed out to sea. Belmont attempts to board the same boat, but is stopped due to lack of room. During the journey they hear a distinct bell and realise they must be close to land. A lady on board then loses her balance and her baby is tossed into the water. In a desperate frenzy she upsets the entire raft, and everybody including the cargo gets cast into the sea! The only remaining passenger is Gerald ‘stopped by the gunwale’, and Philip who is holding on for his life. Eventually, Philip climbs back on board, but the excitement has been too much for Gerald and he swoons in Philips arms. The next day the newspapers publish the sinking of the steamer and both Philip and Gerald are reported drowned. However, the boys are quite alive, and after several days at sea they finally wake to a bright blue sky and see land in the distance. They then dock in a small cove and make their way towards a farmhouse.

Philip leaves Gerald resting while he heads to the farm. The doors and windows are wide open, but nobody is at home when he arrives. He decides to collect Gerald and take the liberty of resting for a while. Philip prepares some food and notices Gerald is feverish and listless. He puts him to bed, and heads to the area where they left their boat. The vessel is gone and after hours of talking gently to Gerald, they fall asleep, until the return of Mr. and Mrs. Probasco. The boys tell their story to the astonished couple, while Mrs. Probasco nurses Gerald. Philip and Mr. Probasco then devise a plan to sail over to the town on the following morning to dispatch letters and telegrams. Unfortunately, the next morning they wake to an equinoctial tempest, and it’s impossible to attempt a crossing. Cooped up in the house for several days they observe the storm, and during the course of one evening, the Probascos reveal the history of the shady Mr. Jennison, their current landlord. Mrs. Probasco explains how he once came to the house with a bunch of dubious characters who were later embroiled in the Suburban Trust Company robbery. As Philip muses whether it is prudent to question her further about his description, Mrs. Probasco tells the boys she has a photograph of him somewhere upstairs. Philip has some reservations and discreetly prompts Mrs. Probasco not to continue the discussion until Gerald is safely asleep. Later in the evening he is shown the photo, and instantly recognises the imposter, aka Belmont, who had caused them so much trouble on the steamer. Philip tells the Probasco family the whole story and explains how Gerald and he must leave the island as soon as it is conveniently possible, as a further encounter with Jennison could be disastrous! The weather clears a little, but due to his Rheumatism, Mr. Probasco is unable to take the boys over the water. A local fisherman is then engaged to ferry them to Chantico, and from there they take a stagecoach to Knoxport.

When they arrive at the hotel they notice Gerald’s father and Mr. Marcy have already checked out. Philip tries to send a telegram, but the lines are frustratingly down due to another huge storm. Mr. Banger (the manager) suggests they inform the papers about their miraculous survival, but Philip is concerned it may alert Jennison prematurely. In the end Philip agrees to the publicity and Banger tells a journalist about their incredible story. The following day there is still no news from Marcy or Gerald’s father and the boys start to worry. Indeed, Mr. Banger also begins to doubt the boys’ story. Retiring to bed Philip hears Jennison’s voice in the lobby. He extracts some information from the proprietor before leaving on his horse.

Philip and Gerald decide that if there’s no news by the end of the day, they will make their own way back to Ossokosee. While Philip is out, the despondent Gerald encounters the persistent Mr. Hilliard-Belmont-Jennison. The imposter attempts to persuade Gerald to leave with him under the ruse of being sent by his father. At that moment Philip arrives and there is a heated altercation. A group of detectives then turn up at the hotel and arrest Jennison (actually known as Billy) for forgery in Boston. The party is further interrupted by the arrival of both Mr. Saxon and Mr. Marcy. Overcome with emotion they relay their story to the dumbfounded men. It transpires that Jennison had been seeking revenge for an earlier failed investment. As they are concluding their adventures, a policeman reappears and tells Philip that Jennison wants to see him at the courthouse. Jennison gives Philip the evidence to exonerate his father from the infamous bank robbery. It appears that Sixsmith the bank janitor had been bent on revenge and causing Mr. Touchstone grief. Philip reads Sixsmith’s deathbed confession and returns to the hotel. He sits with Mr. Marcy and they talk about his interview down at the Courthouse.

In the final chapter the author ties up the loose ends. Saxon, Gerald, Philip and Marcy now live together in the Osokosee Hotel, and Mr. Saxon considers Philip his second son. Later, the two boys (financed by Saxon) go off to college together. The novel concludes with the following observation: ‘But- if one yields to the temptation to be among the prophets, and closes his eyes, there come, chiefly, pleasant thoughts of how good are friendship and love and loyal service between man and man in this rugged world of ours; and how probable it is that such things here have not their ending, since they have not their perfecting here, perfect as friendship and the service sometimes seems. Therewith the inditer of this chronicle sees Philip and Gerald walking forward, calmly and joyfully, and in an unlessened affection and clearer mutual understanding – into their endless lives’.

The Village Curate: an Interesting Tale (1855)

Well, firstly… an interesting tale my arse. This exceedingly rare chapbook by Joseph Crawhall was published in Glasgow sometime between 1855-1860. It’s a small pamphlet of 27 pages and records a clerical tale with a clichéd formula. I’m assuming it’s incredibly rare because it was binned by any sensible Victorian reader, who after spending a penny on it, felt decidedly robbed!

The story begins by introducing Lord Belmont who has enormous wealth and a high status in society. Belmont suspects the ‘encomiums of flattery’ bestowed on him are somewhat insincere and so he feigns financial ruin to see what will happen. As one would expect from such a clichéd story, he is shunned by all his friends (except his old chum Lord Bremere). Belmont explains how he seeks a woman to marry – someone who will accept him for his character not his money. And so he leaves the metropolis wearing nothing but the garb of a rustic cottager, and assumes the grand appellation of George Trueman. He boards a stagecoach for Norwich, and continues onwards to a little village near the sea. Incidentally, he owns the village, but of course none of his tenants know him.

At the village inn he sits with the locals and listens to a conversation about the resent misfortunes of the local curate, parson Benley, who it appears is held in high approbation. It transpires that Benley is heavy in debt, and surprise, surprise, just so happens to hold the curacy gifted by Lord Belmont, and even more astonishing he has been imprisoned for his debts by the lord’s steward. It emerges the Benley owes the sum of 300 pounds. Naturally, on the following morning, our hero Lord Belfort anonymously clears the debt, and as fortune would have it, he bumps into Benley’s children (Harry and Charlotte) on his way back to the inn. When offering to carry her baskets, he becomes smitten by Charlotte’s beauty and decides he must have her for his wife.

We are now introduced to Benley who is festering away in prison. After he is given Trueman’s letter and financial aid, he kneels down to thank God for this good fortune.  In the mean time Trueman on one of his evening walks espies Charlotte being harassed by his creepy steward. The scoundrel is trying to molest her, and while sneaking a kiss, he is knocked to the ground by our hero, Trueman, who pounces from a hedge. After reviving the distressed Charlotte near a stream, he declares his undying love for her. She of course cannot think of joy while her father is languishing in gaol. So what happens next? Young Harry comes running up the road with the news of Mr. Benley’s release. Trueman is invited back to the cottage and is heartily thanked for his services. He now fires his steward and promotes Benley to the vacant position. Benley cottons on to the ruse, and comparing the handwriting from his anonymous benefactor, to the handwriting from Lord Belfont’s letter, he realises they are the same. Trueman holds his hands up and admits he is Lord Belfont and the story ends in a happy marriage and joyous celebrations in the village.

 

 

The Vicar of Roost (1859)

This epistolary novel, published together with ‘The Curate of Cumberworth’ is  a thinly-veiled, half satirical work that mocks the British Establishment. The author, Francis Edward Paget, attacks what he considers to be the slovenly neglect and unsound doctrine of the mid-Victorian Church. In the character of Mr. Soaper, the vicar of Roost, we can perhaps glean what Paget perceived were some of its major faults during this period. Unlike a few of his earlier works he reveals his concerns through sarcasm and humour rather than his usual diatribe, and although the plot is weak, the narrative is light-hearted and entertaining, and the characters are well developed.

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Spoiler Alert

The novel opens with Mr. Dove writing in his journal. Dove is telling the story of his family’s misfortunes. Once destined to be the squire of Verdon Hall, Dove writes how his father, a wealthy merchant, had invested his fortune into a local bank, only to lose every penny when it folded in bankruptcy. Dove recounts how his father disappeared soon after the news, and how his mother frantically searching for him outside, had slipped in the snow, leaving her a paralysed and bed-ridden cripple for life. The servants later found the elder squires walking stick floating in the river, and then of course his body. After settling with their creditors, Dove and his mother leave Verdon Hall, with ‘nothing but their clothes, their poor father’s picture, and perhaps a score of books’. Mrs. Dove is unexpectedly left a small legacy from one of her servants in their will, and the money pays for Dove to attend university. After his studies, Dove is offered a privately tutorship (found by the Provost), and a curacy by the Vicar of Roost, Mr. Soaper, with rent-free lodgings in the village school-house.

Dove arrives in the village of Roost and is ambushed by a group of ‘shoeless children’ who throw stones at his horse. He chats with them briefly before bumping into Mr. Soaper at the local butcher’s shop. Paget dedicates the rest of the chapter to the witty ramblings of Mr. Soaper and his shallow conversations with Dove, and we learn a lot about Soaper’s Anglican philosophy. It appears Soaper lives an extravagant and comfortable lifestyle on the tithes of his parishioners. He is grossly overweight, falsely modest, and clearly inactive in his clerical duties. He has expensive folios of the Church Fathers which he’s never opened, and he repreaches old sermons written by his grandfather. One can truly appreciate his slovenly attitude when he says ‘he left behind him nearly a hundred sermons. I have been preaching them over and over again these twenty years, and shall continue to preach them til my congregation follows the advice contained in them’. In stark contrast, Dove arrives at the school-house and is given a small bedroom beneath a sloping roof, and a sparsely furnished living room facing the noisy playground, with a faulty fire-place that fills his digs with smoke!

Mr. Dove has an unpromising first meeting with the vicar’s wife and his daughter.  Mrs. Soaper has strong and definite opinions about people’s rightful stations ‘there can be no question that the beneficed and unbeneficed clergy stand it totally different positions’ – and it would appear a curates place is definitely beneath hers. She advises that a curate must ‘work, obey orders, and remain in the background’. She also goes out of her way to thwart all her husband’s promises to the curate.

The Soapers take a holiday to Brighton and Dove is left in charge of the parish. He reflects on the difficulties he will likely encounter in the village, and tries to convince himself he is content under the vicar’s rule. He muses ‘in the Navy I might have been promoted, but in the church I can feel myself quite safe’.  He resolves to ‘go on quietly…keeping out of rows and bothers’. During the Sunday service Dove notes the many flaws of the church (like a good Anglo-Catholic!) and ponders why all the rest of the population doesn’t attend. When he asks the clerk why this might be, he is told ‘some can’t come; some could if they would, but don’t’, and ‘some make Sunday their pleasuring day’. Paget leads us to believe there is a complete reticence in the parish, from both the clergy and the congregation. Against the wishes of the clerk, Dove then makes a brief parish visit to the father of one of the boys he first met when he arrived in the village. He is shocked by the squalid conditions he finds in ‘the Moorcot hovels’ and decides to act. After the visit he calls on Mr. Tite, the steward, to ask if anything can be done. Tite, becomes angry with this interference, and tells Dove he is acting above his station.

Dove writes to the Soapers while they are away on holiday and makes several parochial visits to the Ashe family.  When he receives Mr. Soaper’s response it is trivial and absurd. Soaper sympathises with the Ashe family, comparing their life-threatening illnesses to his mild indigestion after eating dressed crab (timballes, au veloute) late in the night! He continues with a pompous lecture about Isaac Ashe, and of his particular aversion to the family. This is followed by a warning not to upset his seniors (the steward and the Marquis), and how visiting the sick can cause contagion amongst the upper classes and must be avoided! Soaper also states that if there are any repercussions from this incident, he will deny any knowledge.

In Chapter V. Dove receives some unexpected but welcomed visitors. His old friend Harry has brought the Marquis of Kingsbury to visit. His Lordship was keen to talk to Dove after receiving his letter about the conditions at ‘the hovel’. Dove takes the high-principled and decent Lord Kingsbury to inspect the dwellings, and afterwards Kingsbury promises to solve the issues through his steward. Harry warns Dove that ‘Tite and Soaper will now lay their heads together to bowl you out, and make Roost too hot to hold you’ once this affair gets abroad. This indeed is the case as within a week Dove receives another scathing letter from the vicar of Roost, which curiously begins as a strong condemnation for his actions, but ends on a rather pleasant and jovial note. Dove discovers that the first and second parts of the letter are written on different types of paper, and concludes ‘in spite of his care to adapt his paper to his correspondents, Mr. Soaper had inclosed (sic) a sheet in my letter which was never intended for my eye; and I have most unluckily perused what was designed for another person’.

The narrative rolls forward ten months and we find Dove reminiscing on his time in the parish. He recalls how his relationship with the Soaper’s has remained the same: cold and formal, and how his ‘interference with the hovel’ has ruined any chance of that changing. Dove elaborates on how his hands are still tied when it comes to any parish improvements. His requests to set up a formal night-school have been denied (on the pretext that it would undermine the vicar’s importance), and he is deprived of holiday (due to the vicar’s supposed illnesses). On several visits to the Soaper residence, Dove encounters Miss Soaper alone (as Mr. Soaper has been too ill to receive him and Mrs. Soaper has been away). Although nothing more than monosyllabic sentences are exchanged between them, Dove is called to account for his improprietous meetings, and leaves the house confused and amazed at the misunderstanding.

There is then an amusing scene where the Marquis and his family (along with Henry) come to church unexpectedly on a Sunday that Soaper is too idle to prepare a sermon. It puts the Soapers’ completely out of humour seeing their curate being praise for his preaching! Of course, the following Sunday, Dove is sent to the parish of Sunnymede ‘to be out of the way’, but the Marquis and his folks have also decided to attend there. As one can imagine this exasperates Mr. and Mrs. Soaper. Dove is also invited to the Marquis’s Castle after the service, but refuses to accept as he doesn’t wish to further antagonise the Soapers. Walking home in inclement weather after church, Dove is taken ill with pleurisy and is laid up for the next few weeks. Although he receives no words of sympathy from the vicar or his wife he does receive a number of nursing offers from the women of the village, and small gifts from the children which helps to lift his spirits. After his illness, Dove takes a short reprieve with Harry and the General, much to the irritation of the selfish Mr. Soaper. Dove returns to a still sulking vicar, who then tries to dismiss him from the curacy. Totally bewildered, Dove denies all accusations thrown at him by Soaper and his wife, and asks that the matter is referred to the bishop. He is so shocked by Soaper’s unreasonableness that he will not agree to resign until he is either condemned or acquitted.

On the following morning Dove meets a rather indignant Mrs. Soaper at the station, who has decided to fight her husband’s corner with the bishop herself. Mrs. Soaper refuses any assistance from Dove, and proceeds to board a first class carriage with a stranger. During the journey she is taken hostage in the long tunnel and told to exchange clothes with the stranger, or she will be shot dead. She nervously complies and on arriving at Chadminster is mistaken for the fugitive, and detained by the detectives. Dove assists Mrs. Soaper by visiting her milliner, before notifying the bishop of the situation. Mrs. Soaper finally shows contrition for her behaviour, and accepts Dove’s assistance in seeing her home.

In the concluding chapter we finally see clerical harmony in Roost. Mr. Sidney, the vicar of Sunnymede, has now passed away, and Mr. Soaper has ridden over to the bishop to solicit the position. In the mean time, Dove receives a letter apparently written by the Marquis offering him the vacancy. As Dove receives this communication on April Fools’ Day, he presumes it’s a hoax, and disregards the letter. Dove is finally called to the Bishop’s palace and formally offered the incumbency. The novel ends with Mr. Dove reflecting on his good fortune, and of his intentions to serve the parish to the best of his abilities – following conscientiously in the footsteps of the late Mr. Sidney.

Oscar Wilde and Masking

Masking and disguise in Oscar Wilde’s plays ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’. What might these masks and disguises tell us about Victorian Society?    (D.P. Baker)

Oscar Wilde is reported to have said ‘I will never outlive the century. The English people will not stand for it.’ He is now more frequently thought of as a man born into the wrong time, a heroic but ultimately doomed castaway in an unsympathetic age, set against the repressive forces of a period’ (Warwick, 2007, p.2).  He led a double life, being both married and having a relationship with an aristocratic man. He led a deceptive life in the higher class society of London, but he wasn’t careful enough.  His tempestuous relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and his sexual relations with rent boys led to his eventual arrest and imprisonment. This was the society Wilde lived in. The strict moral and social rules that regulated Victorian society led to a whole section of society that lived double lives, deceiving their friends, their families and sometimes even themselves. It is within this context that both The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan were written and ultimately performed. Both plays satirically depict Victorian aristocratic life. By giving examples from the two texts I hope to demonstrate how masking plays an important part in high society during the 1890s.

It has been said that the ‘social reality of the 90s was one of power, dominators vs. dominated, and in every passage of The Importance of Being Earnest there is continuous conflict’ (Stone, p.33). Wilde tackles these themes with his epigrams and witty puns which permit his audience to ‘vicariously participate in a sparring contest between “X” and “Y.” These points and counterpoints fluctuate until their blurred differences create an alternative ‘other’’ (Crawford, 2005). This ‘other’ is an important point to remember if we are to take Wilde’s use of language and humour and to see beyond it to the figurative masks worn by the characters.  Although The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan can both be considered comedies, the plays resonate on many different levels of understanding. In a letter to the St James Gazette (26th Feb, 1892) Wilde wrote (on Lady Windermere’s Fan) that he did not want the play to be viewed as ‘a mere question of pantomime and clowning’ but that ‘he was interested in the piece as a psychological study’ (Mason, 2007, p.390). As for the Importance of Being Earnest it has been suggested (Crawford, 2005) that the play is a satire of Wilde’s own life and that Jack’s actions quite often mimic Wilde’s personal life. ‘Jack as an infant is literally exchanged for a manuscript; Wilde exchanges himself and his sexuality for the ‘cucumber sandwiches,’ ‘smoking cases,’ and ‘Bunburyism’ of his characters’.

If we begin by looking at The Importance of Being Earnest we notice that the two principle characters Jack and Algernon are leading double lives. Jack is a land owner, dependable and respectable who has invented a fictitious brother called ‘Earnest.’ He uses this invention to escape his responsibilities and to indulge in immoral behaviour in London. Likewise, Algernon, who is a delightful but idle bachelor has invented a fictional ‘invalid’ character that he can run off ‘visiting’ to escape his commitments. Both of these alternative personas have been created to allow the characters to fulfil their needs and natural instincts in a strict and moral society. In addition to these restraints there was also the issue of class divide. At the opening of the play we are introduced to Algernon and his manservant Lane. Algernon is playing the piano and addresses his servant ‘did you hear what I was playing, Lane?’ To which Lane replies ‘I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.’ Here we can see ‘regulative social conventions’ (Crawford, 2005) at work with the lower class ‘knowing their place.’ In the first instance it would not have been ‘polite’ for Lane to have ‘listened’ and in the second, he is not really being asked his opinion anyway. Whether Lane is telling the truth about hearing the music or not is irrelevant as it is the correct social convention to follow.

Jack and Algernon’s discussion on Algernon’s imaginary, invalid friend, Bunbury, introduces another case of masking within the play. We see in the line ‘My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist.’ One interpretation of this phrase could be ‘you are orally-fixated’ to which Algernon replies: ‘Well that is what dentists do… I have always suspected you of being a confirmed and secret Bunburyist; and I am quite sure of it now.’ They continue with this guarded and heavily disguised language culminating in Jack saying ‘what on earth do you mean by a Bunburyist’ and Algernon replying: ‘I’ll reveal to you the meaning of that incomparable expression as soon as you are kind enough to inform me why you are Ernest in town and Jack in the country’. This coded language is understood by both men but could be read as nonsense if not a little baffling to anybody outside of their ‘circle’.

The play if rife with homosexual and homoerotic masking. According to Demarest (2007) The Importance of Being Earnest exists like a secret code, within and between the words, sharp and teasing and seductive, for the enjoyment of gay society that had to remain so carefully concealed in the margins of society. Of course, homosexuality was illegal in Britain during this time and it was considered a custodial offense if one was found guilty of physical consummation.

A cigarette case was considered a potent symbol for homosexuality in Victorian England and this item plays an interesting part in The Importance of being Earnest. The silver cigarette which Algernon and Jack fight over in Act 1 was a gift Oscar Wilde was known to have given to several of his lovers. If we look at an extract from this scene we see a visible case of homosexual masking and deceit being played out between the two characters. Algernon begins with: ‘Yes; but this isn’t your cigarette case. This cigarette case is a present from some one of the name of Cecily, and you said you didn’t know any one of that name’. To which Jack retorts: ‘Well, if you want to know, Cecily happens to be my aunt!’ So who was Cecily? According to Demarest (2007) ‘Cecily, the name of Jack Worthing’s ward, was a contemporary term for a young male prostitute’.

There are further examples of homosexual masking in the play. For instance when ‘Jack and Algy fight over buttered muffins, apparently blissfully unaware of all the double entendres for buttocks and lubrication or the fact that food is such a very obvious symbolic substitute for sex’ (Demarest, 2007).

If we now look at the second play Lady Windermere’s Fan we notice that this play follows similar themes to that of The ‘Importance of Being Earnest’. And like The Importance of Being Earnest there is a ‘baffling combination of perfect seriousness in its internal structure with perfect frivolity in its apparent structure’ (Stone, p.31). Again we find conflict and pretence, people hiding from the truth and people with mistaken or secret identities. The lies and deception paint a vivid picture of society in Victorian England. The upper classes often had no occupation other than an endless round of social engagements and pleasure seeking activities. Their conversations reveal the boredom which existed within their class system and gives us a view into the world of appearances in which Victorian people lived.

The character of Mrs Erlynne is a major theme in the play. There are numerous opinions about this mysterious woman including her identity, her moral values and her social position. The artificial world of social protocol and etiquette and the hierarchical structure of Victorian society was a game that every member of the upper classes adhered to. It would appear that most ‘decent’ people wore their conventional figurative masks ‘publically’ to retain their place in society. We only have to examine the different attitudes to Mrs Erlynne to see this. At the end of Act 1 we see Lord Windermere agonising over whether he should reveal the identity of Mrs Erlynne to his wife to change her negative opinion, only for him to declare: ‘Margaret! Margaret! [A pause.] My God! What shall I do? I dare not tell her who this woman really is. The shame would kill her. [Sinks down into a chair and buries his face in his hands].’In Act 2 we find further evidence on how important ‘image’ was in Victorian England when Lord Augustus Lorton (brother of the Duchess) asks Lord Windermere how Mrs Erlynne can gain ‘respectability’ as he wishes to marry her!

As with The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde also uses the power of ambiguity in Lady Windermere’s Fan. Wilde often uses meta-language to hide the true intentions of the characters. Stone (p.28) explains how ‘analogically the concept of meta-language can be extended into literature by differentiating between an actual and an implied statement or word-set. Meta-activity is occurring when actual and implied word-sets and the reality they both claim to relate to are being dealt with together.’ A good example which supports this argument is Lord Darlington’s quote in Act 1 ‘Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.’  Another good example can be found in Act 3 where Mr. Dumby consoles Lord Darlington ‘I congratulate you, my dear fellow. In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.’

Marriage is another theme explored by Wilde in Lady Windermere’s Fan. In Act 1 we have Lord Darlington announcing to the Duchess of Berwick: ‘It’s a curious thing, Duchess, about the game of marriage – a game, by the way, that is going out of fashion- the wives hold all the honours, and invariably lose the odd trick.’ And in Act 3 we have a rather interesting conversation between Dumby, Lord Windermere and Cecil Graham where Dumby announces ‘Good heavens! how marriage ruins a man! It’s as demoralising as cigarettes, and far more expensive’. Both these quotes suggest a view marriage as an ideal that men felt obliged to mock publically even if their private views were totally different.

The various disguises and masks adopted by the characters in both The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan reveal an artificial world of protocol, reputation and petty upper class concerns which seemed to dominate their day to day existence. Perhaps this was due to a lack of occupation which invariably led to boredom and idleness.  Another reason might be the fascination the aristocracy had with fashion and role playing. Whatever reasons Wilde had in mind when writing these two plays, what is certain is that he demonstrated aptly the hypocrisy prevalent in Victorian society and used witty language and dialogue to reveal the extent to which people masked their intentions, their true feelings and often their weaknesses.

REFERENCE LIST

CRAWFORD, J. 2005. Point, Counterpoint, Thrust: Wilde’s Pun Burying in The Importance of Being Earnest [www] http://www.crawfordsworld.com/jaimie/professional/oscar.htm (10/01/12/12)

DEMAREST, J. 2007. Directors Notes, The Importance of Being Earnest [www] http://www.rudemechanicals.com/earnest/notes.shtml (10/01/12)

MASON, S. 2007. Bibliography of Oscar Wilde. New York: Haskell House Pub Ltd, p.390

STONE, G. n.d. Serious Bunburyism: The Logic of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ [www] http://eic.oxfordjournals.org/content/XXVI/1/28.full.pdf (10/01/12)

WARWICK, A. 2007. Oscar Wilde. Writers and their Works. Devon: Northcote House Publishers, pp.1-2

WILDE, O. 1974. Oscar Wilde Plays. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd

BIBLIOGRAPHY

SULLIVAN, N. 2003. A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.