Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Silence of Dean Maitland: Volume 1

The Silence of Dean Maitland: title page. Note the deleted draft titles:
The Agony of Dean Maitland, and A Terrible Price.
I was going to start reading Matthew Fitt's Scots SF novel But n Ben A-Go-Go yesterday, but it suddenly occurred to me that there's a remaining gap in my coverage of the Maxwell Gray canon: her original 1886 best-seller The Silence of Dean Maitland. I read it in January 2009 and posted a brief summary, but have never properly written about it for the blog. So ...

The start of the hill up through "Chalkburne"
The Silence of Dean Maitland uses a standard mid-Victorian "three-decker" format, originally published as three separate volumes. It's very solidly an Isle of Wight novel, set largely around "Malborne" (a fictionalised Calbourne), and starts not with the titular character but with a coachman's daughter, Alma Lee, taking a long walk home from "Oldport" up through "Chalkburne" to the downs, starting with Gray's for-a-time classic description:
The gray afternoon was wearing on to its chill close; the dark cope of immovable dun cloud overhead seemed to contract and grow closer to the silent world beneath it, and the steep, chalky hill, leading from the ancient village, with its hoary castle and church, up over the bleak, barren down was a weary thing to climb.
Alma gets a lift on a horse-drawn wagon, but when she arrives home, the (married) driver wants payment with a kiss, Alma is rescued by a visiting family friend, Cyril Maitland, the young curate of Malbourne. Then we're rapidly introduced to the social mix in the area of Malbourne: centrally, there's the handsome, charismatic and clever Cyril Maitland, and his sister Lilian; Maitland's college friend, the doctor Henry Everard, and his sister Marion (Maitland is engaged to Marion, and Everard has a long-standing friendship with Lilian). At opposite ends of the scale are the aristocratic Swaynestones, and the various villagers and minions, who include the coachman Ben Lee and his attractive and intense daughter Alma. There is, ominously, a definite attraction between Alma and Maitland, despite the latter's engagement and radically different social status.

Cut to a year later, and Everard and Maitland are travelling home by train to Malbourne, exchanging theological conversation. Maitland is evidently spiritually troubled, and mortifying himself under his shirt with a spiked crucifix, and when they arrive at Oldport, insists on putting dried peas in his boots for the five-mile walk to Malbourne, where they get a frosty reception from Ben Lee. It's noticed that Maitland doesn't look well, and it turns out he's broken off his engagement with Marion after she insisted on going abroad for a year with her convalescent brother. Everard and Marion are reconciled, but this is overshadowed by the news that Alma is pregnant by some unknown upper-class man.

Maitland preaches an apposite sermon at Malborne Church, on the subject of innocence and guilty conscience. It's generally assumed to be an attempt to stir the conscience of the unknown father of Alma's baby, but no-one suspects that it could be self-referential (not even Everard, who has found an incriminating letter in the pocket of his coat, which Maitland had borrowed). Meanwhile, Judkins, a rejected suitor of Alma's has been selling to Ben Lee the theory that Everard is the father, on grounds of seeing Everard's talking with Alma in the woods (actually about her mother's illness).

By the end of the year, Everard and Lilian have become engaged, and everyone on the upper-crust side of Malborne is happy. Everard, Lilian and Maitland go for a walk in the forest on New Year's Eve, returning their separate ways. But simultaneously, Alma's now-enraged father Ben has also headed for the the same forest, aiming to have it out with Everard. The morning after, the general celebratory mood is broken when Ben's body is found in a quarry - and on the same day, Alma gives birth to a child.

to be continued

Brief thoughts; it's an interesting start - Thomas Hardy meets The Scarlet Letter. The novel has a very vivid sense of location and character, representing well the social strata of a mid-Victorian village, and the tensions are set up from the start. It has some weaknesses of an early novel: a tendency to disgress irrelevantly into the author's own obsessions (MG liked cats, and there are extended descriptions of the antics of a cat, Mark Anthony) and some pretty odd areas of local colour that again appear irrelevant. There's a set-piece, for instance, where Lilian displays powers as a horse-whisperer. The climax of the first volume is well set-up; we can see exactly where it's going, as Everard innocently collects circumstantial evidence - being in the forest at the wrong time, a muddied coat from a fall, and a black eye acquired when a child bumps into him - that we just know will prove incriminating.

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Calbourne aka Malbourne.

The silence of Dean Maitland: a novel (1886) - Volume 1 (Internet Archive ID silenceofdeanmai01gray).

- Ray


  1. I've got Cyril ... where does Dean come in?

    Oh ... or is Cyril in the post of "dean"?

  2. Yes. Confusingly, he doesn't acquire the title of dean until later in the book, when his career has advanced into the cathedral hierarchy.

  3. I don't know when "Dean" became a regular given name; it feels quite modern - early 20th century - but it's hard to tease out of corpus data. I always slightly boggle at Dean Swift, which looks like GivenName+Surname rather Title+Surname. His going into the church seems to be largely career-gaming.

  4. I did feel, when you first mentioned the title (back along), a surprise that "Dean" was a given name of interest to someone of the class that supplied writers in the late 19th century ... but I didn't (duh!) make the obvious next step until now!

    I know of a Dean (given name) in the US in the 1890s and in Ireland between the wars (1st & 2nd world) but don't remember noticing any British ones until ... oh ... maybe the 19?0s or 80s?

  5. It occurred to me that genealogical sites might work here. A lot don't, because they demand data in a surname field, but I find (one run by the Mormons) lets you search by given name only, filtered by region and date if need be. A sample search here finds large numbers of Deans born in the UK in the 19th century.