Sunday, 27 February 2011

"It was a dark and stormy night"

As explained at Wikipedia - It was a dark and stormy night - the opening paragraph of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1830 novel Paul Clifford is generally considered the nadir of purple prose.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

However, having just read part of Maxwell Gray's 1899 story collection The World's Mercy, I have to conclude Bulwer-Lytton to be an amateur at the genre. Here are the intros to a couple of the stories:

The night was stormy ; a wan moon rode through masses of black and gold, swift-sailing cloud, through lakes of clear blue space and threads of opal and silver film, thus producing a wildly beautiful and impressive series of sky pictures. Now and again the dim wet streets were swept empty and dark by a scud of rain, then as suddenly flooded by clear, pale moonlight, when the wet flags and streaming runnels became a dazzling silver brilliance, making the light from houses appear duller and dimmer than before.
- An Old Song, from The World's Mercy

A bitter wind swept the dim-lighted street, along which a few stragglers passed with bent heads and swift steps, and through which wheels rattled drily at intervals. It shook windows in sudden gusts; it rose from time to time to howl savagely round the house, and died down in groans and mutterings of impotent rage. Stars glittered with fiery brilliance in a steel-blue sky that seemed to shudder in the fierce blast; trees shivered and moaned in the bear [sic] garden.
- The World's Mercy, from The World's Mercy

The World's Mercy comprises some rather odd stories; the title story in particular reads like a pious temperance-themed melodrama of a format that went out of fashion decades before. It opens on the above-described chilly night in a small town, and introduces us to Isabel Arnott, a wife who is caring for her sick baby (the only survivor of several children) and waiting with trepidation for the arrival of her husband George, who is a doctor and drunkard. He turns up in the small hours and - a regular habit - locks her and baby Harry out on the street. With no-one else to to turn to, she is rescued by Arthur Hedley, a student lodging opposite, who takes her and the child in.

Arnott wakes with a hangover the next day to find Isobel missing and Harry laid out dead in his cot. The maid, Charlotte, explains that Harry had been left dead on the doorstep. Arnott is guilt-stricken and swears that he will never drink again. He persuades Charlotte to keep quiet about the night's events, on grounds that his imprisonment would leave Isobel destitute.

The next day, his colleague Dr Marston visits and is also informed of the true story; shocked, he nevertheless, pledges to help Arnott turn his life around. In this, Arnott succeeds over the next few months, materially at least. Isobel, however, remains missing, and Arnott still suffers badly from guilt. Charlotte seeks the aid of a visiting missionary, Philip Sternroyd of the Upton Fathers. Sternroyd comes to the house, and Arnott is surprised to find that he knows him: he was Sternroyd's fag at public school. The charismatic Sternroyd gives him absolution, and Arnott lives a sober and religious life from that point.

Five years later, we are introduced to a lady called Belle Harris, who lives in an idyllic country cottage with her daughter Pansy. Her husband Arthur, generally away on business, is due to arrive. On his return, it's revealed that "Mr and Mrs Harris" are Arthur Hedley and Isobel Arnott. She was pregnant at the time of her rescue, and Pansy is her daughter by George. Her relationship with Arthur is already distinctly chilly, but Arthur has further bad news; he has to end it, as he too is suffering from guilt, and his strict Puritan parents want him to marry someone else. He gives her six months' lease on the cottage, and leaves.

A further five years have passed, and George Arnott is living an exemplary life. His medical practice has recovered and, still friends with Sternroyd, he is physician for Hill House, a hostel for alcoholics. In the autumn, Sternroyd suggests he and Arnott take a holiday at St Egbert's, a mission house in Portsmouth run by their friend Father Anstey ("a sort of slum menagerie, a combination of socialism and monkery"). During their stay, there's an altercation in the street, and Arnott is called to attend on a flower-seller who, in a drunken fight, has hit her head on a curbstone. It turns out to be the long-missing Isabel. Gravely injured, she recovers consciousness enough to tell her story - how she turned to crime and drink after Hedley abandoned her - and to evidently forgive George, before dying. Sternroyd then introduces George to his daughter Pansy.

Then, with a sob of unspeakable thankfulness, he took the lonely little thing in his arms and kissed and blessed her. And in the deep peace that fell upon him he knew that his penitence was accepted and her pardon sure. So he tasted the sweetness of God's mercy, which is not as the world's mercy.

I can't disagree with the general thrust of reviews: that the book was mostly a turkey. The sarcastic Pall Mall Gazette review is worth quoting in full:

When at page 4 we found a boy of a year old called a "noble babe," we instinctively tightened our grasp of "The World's Mercy" and applied ourselves with new diligence to the assiduous and conscientious study of every page that followed, in the active hope that "Maxwell Gray" would afford us more entertainment than is her wont. For a while our search was unrewarded, although it was with a pleasurable thrill that we found an old gatekeeper described as "castellan;" but in the fullness of time, and after some wearisome plodding, we came, in a waking interval, on this lofty and soaring passage: "Oh! rosemary ... your fragrance is the scent of unforgotten youth, which was sweet, and is bitter in retrospect ... which was gloomy with despair, and is now, seen in the arid meridian of life, glorious with auroral hues of hope." Even the doubt whether the reference is to youth or a visible perfume cannot conceal from us the sublimity of this description. To those who enjoy this style of thing, since there is more of it, we can recommend the book, but as for the tales themselves, we can but give praise to the last of them, "The Widow’s Clock," which is simple, unaffected, and pretty. The rest are generally without plan or purpose, the incidents are not worth the chronicling, the dialogue is still, awkward, and frequently impossible, and the characterization indistinct and colourless. Moreover, although we expect no graces of style from "Maxwell Gray," we note with surprise how much the construction of her involved sentences leaves to be desired, even in the matter, even in the matter of gramma. It must, however, be admitted that she is powerful and convincing in the account of Isabel Arnott's horror of her drunken husband, and of that husband’s remorse on finding that he is responsible for the death of his baby boy, "the noble babe" aforesaid. But the strongest impression the book leaves on the reader’s mind is that "Maxwell Gray" had better keep to the writing of the religious novel, and leave the writing of short stories to others.
- The Pall Mall Gazette, March 28, 1900

- Ray

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